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Massive Scouting Report: Crew SC at D.C. United

A breakdown of a clash between winless teams

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Houston Dynamo
Harrison Afful and Crew SC travel to D.C. United on Saturday as both clubs search for win No. 1.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

For a second straight season, Columbus Crew SC is off to a slow start. Of course, two games is a very small sample size and there is a ton of time to get things straightened out.

On Saturday, the Black & Gold travel to D.C. United to take on another club that is without a win through two weeks. In DCU’s case, it is without a goal.

But RFK Stadium is always a tough place for Columbus to go, and road wins are hard to come by. Plus, Crew SC will be missing one of its Designated Players.

What will the weekend hold? Can Columbus begin to turn things around? Here’s a look at some key aspects of the matchup.

How they’ll set up

United has been pretty consistent in the way it sets up. Look for a 4-1-4-1, with Marcelo Sarvas is the pivot at defensive midfielder and was a huge pickup for the team last year. He didn’t have his best performance last week, but he’s still a major component.

The wingers are Lloyd Sam and Patrick Nyarko, who is the team’s top playmaker with Luciano Acosta out of the lineup. But he’s a guy who can cause problems running at a defense, rather than making a key pass to unlock a back line.

The center mids that play higher up the field are Jared Jefferey and Ian Harkes, or at least that was the pairing against NYCFC. Jefferey is a box-to-box runner who helps with the press, while Harkes made his first MLS start against NYCFC. You might recognize his name (yes, he is the son of John). It’s not a guarantee he’ll start again, but I thought he showed enough (if still a little unpolished, as you’d expect) to get more time.

Up top is Patrick Mullins, who has found a lot of success in D.C., but is more of a poacher and a guy who needs the midfield to give him opportunities in the box. He’ll float on a center back’s shoulder and try to pick up chances in the penalty area.

I’ll talk about the back line below, but it’s one that’s transitioning a little bit. Left back Taylor Kemp has a wicked left foot and Steve Birnbaum is building himself into one of the sturdiest center backs in MLS and a major aerial threat on set pieces.

D.C. United likes to get out in transition and will likely cede the majority of possession to Columbus, especially if Acosta is not on the field.

Scoreless United

D.C. has not found the back of the net yet. It’s one of the main talking points surrounding the team right now.

Part of that is almost certainly the absence of playmaking attacking midfielder Acosta. The Argentine is so good in tight spaces and was the key piece that allowed United to kind of shake its reputation in the second half of last season and begin to play with a little more verve in the attack. But he’s been out with an injury, and it’s obvious the DCU attack has suffered, forced to be more workmanlike and clearly less effective.

Acosta is back practicing; it’s unclear if he’ll be on the field Saturday, or how much he will be, if he is. He is a gamechanger. His presence will immediately make DCU a threat going forward. If he’s not, the club will continue to look for answers.

It’s worth noting, though, that last week D.C. had a quality counter attack goal waved off by an offside flag. And that in Week 1 against Sporting Kansas City, DCU deserved at least a goal, but was thwarted by a couple excellent saves by SKC goalkeeper Tim Melia (including a penalty kick) and a couple of goal-line clearances.

So, yes, there are some issues scoring for United, but it might be unwise to underestimate their ability to come up with a couple of strikes.

Last week’s mess

I’m talking about D.C.’s, not Columbus’.

It was the most stretched I’ve seen the DCU defense in some time; the thing that has made them difficult to play against is their organization.

But against NYCFC the unit was on its heels. Sarvas too often didn’t slow things down in front of the back line, and elsewhere a lifelong winger is transitioning into right back (Nick Deleon) and an outside back transitioning to center back (Shaun Franklin).

Although D.C.’s midfield didn’t do the back line any favors, it’s something to keep an eye on. New York City had some success playing from the wing and putting some crosses in, and we know Crew SC will be wing/cross heavy, so it’s possible that will work in the Black & Gold’s favor.

But for what it’s worth, it seems unlikely to see a repeat. There were a few mistakes that allowed NYC to get out in transition and cleaning up two or three errors might completely change the complexion of that game.

The sample size is too small to know yet whether this is a case of a still-jelling defensive unit that may make some mistakes or simply a day in which everything went wrong.

Get explosive

This is a criticism I’ve had of the Black & Gold dating back to last season. There are different rates of attack, and I’m not just talking about counter attack vs. attacking in possession.

Too often, Columbus works the ball rather methodically, or builds up the wing at a moderate pace and whips a cross in. A bit more urgency and rate of attack would do wonders in keeping a defense on its heels.

Look at the first goal NYCFC scores on D.C. United last week. New York City has possession and plays out of the back, but they get the ball down field quickly and then move it quickly, which puts DCU on the back foot and opens enough space for Jack Harrison to then explosively attack 1-v-1, which creates the goal (because everyone’s ball watching on his initial shot).

That clip doesn’t show that the ball is played from right to left out of the back, with the goalkeeper touching it, before Ronald Matarrita plays the down the wing to spring the attack.

It’s a possession attack, but also one that happens decisively, rather than plodding up the field. CCSC could afford to take a few notes.

Midfield mistakes

This might decide the game.

D.C. United has been punished a few times this season for coughing the ball up at midfield. It was apparent against New York City FC.

As usual, this clip doesn’t start until after the turnover in the midfield, but David Villa simply intercepts a pass when D.C. has possession and NYCFC is off to the races.

The ability for Wil Trapp and Mohammed Abu and/or Artur to break up some plays and quickly flip the field will be critical for Columbus.

The other side of the coin is CCSC must avoid turning the ball over in the midfield. Against a United side that’s struggling to create goals on its own, there’s no need to help the cause.

Part of that will be weathering the press, which is something DCU will almost certainly use at points in the game. Columbus has had issues with the press in the past, and can’t afford to have let downs there. Here’s a chance D.C. created against SKC with the press.

We already know Jonathan Mensah will be out for Columbus with a red-card suspension. The expectation is that Josh Williams will likely step into that role next to Nicolai Naess. Whoever it is will have to be calm under that pressure, as will the rest of the back line and ... Zack Steffen.

Other questions

Can Justin Meram exploit space behind Deleon on the left?

Can Federico Higuain pull Sarvas all over the field and create space?

Will Gregg Berhalter leave Harrison Afful on the field for a full 90 minutes? And can Afful keep tabs on Nyarko all day?