Columbus Crew SC is set to face D.C. United this Saturday for the second time in only three weeks, but the Black & Gold should expect a completely different game than the one that happened at MAPFRE Stadium back in March. And that starts by one of the most basic aspects of soccer, the field.
D.C. is nearing the end of the construction of its brand-new stadium, Audi Field, which will be inaugurated in July. For that reason, the team is playing most of its matches on the road in the first portion of the season.
From D.C.’s first 14 matches in 2018, the team will be the host for only two, with the second of them being against Crew SC on Saturday. The team is not playing at its old home RFK Stadium anymore, so the venue selected for this weekend’s match is the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland.
The 34,000-seat stadium, which is home for college football and lacrosse matches, has some peculiar characteristics, which are expected to influence the game, including a narrow field and synthetic turf.
“It’s just another soccer game, but I know we’ll probably get a look at the field ahead of time and make sure everyone is acclimated with the turf and those sorts of things,” Crew SC captain Wil Trapp said. “It will be a different atmosphere than RFK ever was, but it will be 90 minutes as usual. We played in Atlanta in a big field, so this is the same.”
Playing on the turf will not necessarily be new for Crew SC, as five other MLS clubs have the same kind of playing surface. The synthetic field makes the game faster and the bounce of the ball a little more unpredictable.
For a team like Crew SC, which likes to keep possession and move the ball, the change in the pace of the game could actually be a positive factor. At least that’s what head Gregg Berhalter thinks.
“It can help us,” he commented. “It’s something that we can take advantage of. The thing about turf is that you control the ball, you pass the ball. You don’t need to play one-touch. The ball travels quickly and you have an extra time to take a touch, it’s hard to close down. So we focus on just quick ball movement and getting guys near each other so we can move the ball quickly.”
Having players near each other shouldn’t be a complicated task considering the approximate dimensions of 110x70 yards of the stadium. The field is narrower than what is usual for soccer venues, which means that the ball should be inside the penalty box more often than in a “normal” game.
That will force players to be focused in every moment of the match and react faster to each play. According to center back Josh Williams, who had limited experience playing on a narrow field at Yankee Stadium during his time with New York City FC, the level of attention this weekend needs to be even higher than usual, starting even before the first whistle.
“I’d say every aspect of the game is literally turned up just a little split second,” he remarked. “It can kind of disorient you for the first couple of minutes of the game, so that’s going to be important there. Warm-ups will be important there, take the right mentality to the warm-ups and from there work your way out and sort your way through the game.”
One of the Crew SC players who are more likely to have his game impacted by the dimensions of the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium is right-back Harrison Afful.
The Ghanaian international, who is one of the team’s most active offensive weapons playing wide on the right side of the field, will have less space to make his runs, but he is aware of some of the adjustments that will be need to be made.
“You have to pick the right movements when defending and attacking because the ball will keep coming,” Afful added. “In terms of crossing, since it’s a smaller field, you need to take your time, wait for the right moment and just put the ball in. In this game, shorter crosses will be perfect, considering the field. You don’t have to kick the ball too strongly and players need to move to the right spots.”
One way or the other, some tweaks will be necessary to Crew SC’s game this weekend. And that could be considered a hard challenge for a team that is used to playing a very specific style.
However, the willingness to remain competitive regardless of the conditions also drives the players towards a good result on the road after back-to-back losses.
“You have to take the right mindset into this, it might not be the prettiest game,” Williams concluded. “We want to go there and dominate possession, but in certain games you need to find other ways to win matches.”
“It is going to be a big test. Everyone knows that we can win pretty and we can play that way, but can we go into a smaller field and win ‘dirty?’ Hopefully it doesn’t get that way, but if it does, we got to show up and prove to the rest of the league that we can win like that.”