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Massive Scouting Report: What obstacles do D.C. present to Columbus clinching?

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D.C. United is improved, but Crew SC looks to make it a speed bump en route to the playoffs

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at D.C. United
Luciano Acosta leads a better supporting cast for D.C. United into Columbus on Saturday.
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Remember when Columbus Crew SC fans were ready to pull the plug on the season? Well, on Saturday at MAPFRE Stadium the club will line up against Eastern Conference bottom feeder D.C. United with a chance to clinch a postseason berth and position itself well in the seeding.

D.C. is playing its third game in seven days following a win over the San Jose Earthquakes and a fortunate draw with New York Red Bulls at midweek.

United played the same starting 11 in both games, which will likely result in some mix of player rotation and fatigued legs this weekend.

For CCSC, it’s a huge opportunity — the final home game of the season against a tired opponent that is trying to figure things out.

Can Crew SC carry momentum from a huge win over the Red Bulls a week ago, take a full three points and seal the playoff deal? Here’s a look at the matchup and what it will take for the Black & Gold to avoid drama in the final weeks.

At a glance

Record: 9-17-5 (11th Eastern Conference; 1.03 ppg)

Form: WLLWD

After a dismal midseason stretch, DCU has played better soccer of late. Its most recent run, though, has been a bit more mediocre, as it was forced to play more on the road. United has, however, taken points in each of its last two games — against San Jose and New York Red Bulls.

Formation: 4-2-3-1

Goal leader: Luciano Acosta (5), Patrick Mullins (5)

Assist leader: Lloyd Sam (4)

D.C.’s personnel

D.C. United was one of the most active teams in the summer transfer window, and as a result looks significantly different than it did earlier in the year, including Columbus’ 2-0 win in the first meeting on March 18.

The changes have seen the squad move from a traditional 4-4-2 to a 4-2-3-1 with a little more attacking push — eerily similar to how last season played out, leading a lot of people to think D.C. would be an improved team this year. And then it wasn’t.

But the personnel boosts have been significant this time around.

MLS: D.C. United at New York Red Bulls
Russell Canouse is one of a number of summer transfers that have made D.C. United less bad.
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Russell Canouse has been one of D.C.’s best players since arriving from Germany. The defensive midfielder leads the team in tackles per game (2.9) and blocks (1.6) and is second in interceptions (2.1), and his assist on United’s one quality goal against New York on Wednesday is proof he can contribute going forward as well.

He’s played alongside the veteran Marcelo Sarvas or the rookie Ian Harkes.

Lloyd Sam is the team’s assist leader playing on the wing, but his playing time has seen a dip with the addition of two in-season signings, including U.S. international Paul Arriola. The winger provides two-way work, intelligent movement in the attack and a solid final ball. Despite his short stint thus far, his 2.05 expected assists is third on the team.

Hungarian Zoltan Stieber has also made an impact. In a small sample size, Stieber has been one of the better players in the league in terms of expected goals + expected assists per 96 minutes (0.59) and key passes per 96 minutes (2.71), according to American Soccer Analysis.

While the new guys have come in, they’ve helped attacking midfielder Luciano Acosta, who has shown flashes of brilliance throughout his career but hasn’t had a whole lot of help. He is still the most dangerous United player when it comes to creating something out of nothing. His 10.4 touch percentage is barely second on the team (to Canouse).

Acosta and Sam each have a team-best 48 key passes.

Despite Acosta’s ability, United still wants to get the ball wide, utilizing Arriola, Sam and Stieber to pull the defense and get the ball back in.

Here’s one example from last weekend against San Jose:

Defensively, United is without left back Taylor Kemp — a big miss considering the threat of his left foot on set pieces and his heavy involvement in ball circulation (a team-high 12.4 touch percentage).

Kofi Opare and Steve Birnbaum has been the rocks in the center of the back line, with Nick DeLeon a regular at outside back, while Sean Franklin, Chris Korb and Chris Odoi-Atsem have also filled in at fullback.

And, of course, there’s the return of Steve Clark. If he plays. There appears to be some tension between DCU and Bill Hamid — out of contract at the end of the season — right now, and Clark has started the past two games in the name of learning what the club has in Clark, according to D.C.’s front office.

The real question is who will actually step on the field for United. Playing its third game in seven days, one would expect some player rotation. And with nothing to play for, it’s all about getting a look at players to figure out what the team has for next year. How will that manifest itself against Columbus on Saturday?

Notes from last week

On Saturday, United hosted San Jose and after just over a half of not a whole lot, D.C. exploded with four goals, all from Patrick Mullins. Yes, that’s right, Mullins, who is co-leader of the team with five goals on the season, scored four of those in one game last weekend.

It was a game in which DCU had the majority of the chances and about half the possession.

On Wednesday, D.C. was fortunate to savage a point in a game in which it was outplayed. New York controlled possession by a significant margin and had almost three times as many chances as United. But it didn’t matter.

DCU scored one on a deflected free kick and another on an own goal in stoppage time that earned the draw. Not the most convincing ways to score, but they count all the same.

Here’s a look at how things played out against NYRB:

DCU dashboard vs. NYRB

You don’t typically get points out of a day like that.

It’s worth noting that D.C. played the exact same starting 11 in both of these games.

Crew keys

  • Use width — When D.C. is at its best defensively, its remaining compact. When it struggled on Wednesday against the Red Bulls, it was because the defense got stretched and tossed and turned. Here’s the first of Tyler Adams’ two goals for NYRB:

Playing wide and switching the field. Adams’ second goal came off of similar action. Columbus needs to take advantage of that same thing, whether its with Justin Meram and Pedro Santos or with Harrison Afful and Jukka Raitala overlaps.

  • Keep shape — D.C. wants to use its wingers to open up space inside. The Crew SC defense has to be disciplined enough to not get stretched by Arriola, Sam and Stieber and leave gaps for Acosta or Mullins (or Deshorn Brown) to float into. There’s a reason Mullins spent most of the season producing nothing — the other players weren’t creating enough to create gaps and provide service. CCSC will need to make sure they aren’t victimized by that.
  • Score first — None of these bullet points are mind-blowing or groundbreaking. It’s basic stuff. Scoring first is always good, but it’s especially helpful in this instance because DCU is a team playing for nothing but pride right now. Dumping them into a hole early is the best way to give them even less to play for. Go all out and leave no doubt.
  • Avoid own goals — Talk about obvious. But D.C. has been a magnet for own goals in the final third of this season, for some reason. Maybe its because of the propensity to dump balls into the box, maybe it’s because DCU hasn’t been very good and defenders tend to fall asleep for a half second or get lazy with their technique. Whatever it is, don’t hurt yourself.

Final thoughts

Regardless of new faces and better play, D.C. United is a team that’s under performed nearly all season and is officially eliminated from the playoffs. That said, they do have guys playing for jobs next season, so there is motivation.

The real question is what the team will look at in a busy week. It sure appears to be a ripe opportunity for Columbus, playing at home (the late-season “resurgence” D.C. has shown has largely come on the back of home games) against a tired team at the bottom of the table.

Here’s how the teams may line up:

Columbus Crew SC vs D.C. United - Football tactics and formations