After a dreary performance against the Houston Dynamo, the Columbus Crew hit the road again to take on Eastern Conference rivals D.C. United. This match is of significance to each side despite the differences in their respective positions in the table.
Having clinched a playoff spot, this match represents an opportunity for Columbus to continue to amass points as the team pushes for as many home-field games in the playoffs as possible. In addition, the Black & Gold desperately need to prove that they are capable of winning on the road.
Conversely, United is fresh off of a big win on the road against Atlanta United and is looking to continue to gain points in the team’s late-season playoff push. Needless to say, that this match is one that each side will have circled on their calendars as an opportunity to gain points late in the season.
Let’s take a look at what to expect in the first iteration of this historic rivalry in 2020.
D.C. United at a Glance:
Record: 4-6-10, 18 points
League Form: W-W-D-L-L
Leading Scorer: Ola Kamara (3)
Assist Leader: Felipe Martins, Julian Gressel (2)
Player to Watch: Ola Kamara
Crew fans will fondly remember the ability that Kamara possesses and are well aware of the goal-scoring prowess he is known for around the league. Kamara will find himself on the other side of this rivalry on Wednesday night and will no doubt be looking for some revenge against his old side.
While D.C. has often struggled to score goals thus far in 2020, Kamara’s strengths are on display in United’s attacking game plan and will be a focus for the Black & Gold defensively. A large part of D.C.’s offense focuses on attacking in quick transition, which highlights Kamara’s speed and strength when in space. In addition, the focus on providing crosses and service from wide areas highlights Kamara’s aerial ability in attack. United has no doubt placed an emphasis on providing for Kamara in recent matches and will look to continue to do so the rest of the 202 campaign.
How DC United play:
D.C. fired long-time head coach Ben Olsen earlier this month and replaced him with interim Chad Ashton who will likely remain in this role until the end of the 2020 campaign. Ashton has made a few changes in his tenure that have resulted in United winning it’s last two matches.
The first major change is the formation that D.C. has employed under Ashton. Ashton has switched to a 4-4-2 during his time in charge. While United used this formation at times this year, Olsen often used versions of a 4-2-3-1 and 5-4-1 in his tenure. Ashton has reaped the rewards of sticking with a consistent formation and style of play so far. It should be noted that Ashton is in a relatively pressure-free position as an interim coach and is liable to shake things up at any point. However, in his four matches in charge, D.C. has stuck with relatively similar game plans.
Defensively, United is set up to be compact and hard to break down defensively. Defending in its 4-4-2 shape enables the team to apply pressure in wide areas as well as block central passing lanes. If this sounds familiar to Crew fans it is because Columbus sets up in a remarkably similar defensive shape.
Typically, D.C. has set up its defensive pressure to start right in front of the outer edge of the center circle in the attacking half. However, there are times that United will apply pressure high up the field in order to try and force a turnover. One of these times is if/when the opposition plays the ball from a center back or outside back in a wide area back to its goalkeeper. D.C. will use this pass as a cue to apply pressure and try and force a mistake via this press. This is of particular note to Crew fans as it is a pass that the Black & Gold often play and the Columbus netminder and back four will need to be ready to face this pressure at times.
Offensively, United tends to use the same shape but oftentimes vary which players occupy the places in that shape. Most often, D.C. will try and possess the ball in a 3-5-2 shape and will push one or both outside backs higher up the field. Again this is similar to how the Crew typically sets up while in possession. However, the way that the two sides look to progress the ball is significantly different.
As Crew fans know, the Black & Gold are happy to circulate the ball from side to side before creating an opportunity to move the ball into a more advanced part of the field. However, in many instances in previous games, D.C. looks to circulate the ball from side to side to create an opportunity to play a long ball into the front line. The team then will look to move numbers towards the ball, win the ball and attack from there.
Essentially, United often bypasses its midfield while in possession and use its midfielders primarily as ball winners in the attack. While different than the Crew, it is still effective as it causes the opposition’s backline to consistently win challenges and forces the opposing midfield to win the ball after those challenges. If not, D.C. is ready to pounce on the ball and launch an attack. It should be noted that United has scored in every match under Ashton and a major part of that success is due to this slight change in tactics.
How the Crew can win:
One could make the argument that this is the most important match for the Black & Gold this year. With only four games left, the importance of gaining points cannot be understated. Furthermore, with the quality of opponents like the Philadelphia Union and Orlando City SC further on down the road, points may be much harder to come by in the last three matches. When you add these factors to the fact that the Crew has struggled on the road this year, you get an equation for a vital three points.
It seems very simple and perhaps elementary, but Columbus needs to place a huge emphasis on scoring first in this match. As a matter of fact, the Black & Gold have scored first in only two road matches this year. While it seems obvious that it is important to score first, it is especially important on the road due to the other obstacles that road teams face.
In addition to this, it very much suits the Black & Gold’s gameplan to score the first goal. Head coach Caleb Porter and his staff place a huge emphasis on controlling the match. This is something that is often said in the Crew’s dressing room. Given the emphasis on possession and playing at a slightly slower tempo, one can safely assume that a slower tempo of play suits Columbus.
With this being said, oftentimes this ability is lost when you concede first in a match. Since the opposition is winning, it forces a team’s hand and oftentimes forces the Black & Gold to make changes to their tactical plan and style of play. While the Crew has proven they can effectively chase a game and eventually earn a point many times this year on the road, it is no doubt that Columbus taking the lead, rather than conceding first, will increase its effectiveness and ability to execute the game plan and control the match.
In addition, it is vital for the Black & Gold to create more chances in the attacking third. It has been well noted by the Crew faithful that the Black & Gold did not record a shot on goal until the 83rd minute this past Saturday against Houston. Simply put, this is not necessarily the most productive way of attacking.
While many have argued that the Crew is willing to pass up low percentage chances for high percentage chances, the Black & Gold need to have an increased focus on creating these high percentage chances. All too often in recent matches, Columbus has attacked methodically and lethargically for the majority of the game. While the Crew certainly has a few certain types of shots the team is looking for (think early crosses from wide areas or pull-back crosses from the end line) there needs to be a clear sense of urgency in creating these shots.
This particularly applies to this match as D.C. has not exactly established itself as defensive powerhouses thus far in 2020. The Crew needs to look to exploit the United defensive weaknesses that could lead to these high percentage shots and chances with a greater sense of urgency than in recent matches. If Columbus is able to do this, the team will likely have no problem scoring goals in this match.