It is the first time since November of 2020 that the Columbus Crew is entering a match after a loss. The Black & Gold were knocked out of the CONCACAF Champions League with a 3-0 defeat in Mexico to Monterrey to end any hopes of becoming the first MLS team to win the tournament. Now it’s all about Major League Soccer play with Columbus hosting D.C. United in its third match of the season.
While the Champions League is done, head coach Caleb Porter still has to focus on squad health and rotation with one more week upcoming with two games. The likes of forward Gyasi Zardes and mifielders Artur and Darlington Nagbe were unable to play a full 90 minutes on Wednesday as a precautionary measure for injuries and fans could see similar rotation and subtitues again on Saturday.
D.C. is on a two-game losing streak with its most recent defeat at the hands of the San Jose Earthquakes, 4-1. However, United has a good streak against the Crew, winning its last four regular season matches versus the Black & Gold. It’s been a season of adapting for the four-time MLS Cup winners with a new manager in Hernan Losada implementing a new system with multiple stars out with injury.
Let’s take a look at what the Crew could see on Saturday.
D.C. United at a Glance:
Record: 1-2-0, 3 points
League Form: L-L-W
Leading Scorer: Brendan Hines-Ike, Russell Canouse, Tony Alfaro (1)
Assist Leader: Julian Gressel, Junior Moreno, Yamil Asad (1)
Player to Watch: Julian Gressel
Gressel has been United’s best player thus far with the likes of Paul Arriola and Bill Hamid out with injury. As an advanced right winger, Gressel has caused a lot of danger on the right-hand side of the pitch with an assist this season to go along with high marks on passing accuracy and tackles. He will be a focus for the Crew with how he played in the two teams only meeting in 2020.
In that late October match, Gressel got the man of the match award, scoring the lone goal in the 1-0 victory against Columbus while being able to retain possession for D.C. in the moments they had the ball. He played a more advanced pure right winger role in that contest with his position now more of a right wing back that has to help in defense in Losada’s new interchangeable 3-5-2 or 5-3-2 formation.
How D.C. United play:
United is still trying to find its footing in a brand new system under Losada. The 38-year-old Argentine became the manager of Belgian club Beerschot in 2019 and led them to promotion into the Belgian first division in his first season. As the D.C. manager, he has adopted a new system that is the opposite of longtime former manager Ben Olsen.
United plays a demanding and active high-press style, similar to what MLS fans have seen from the New York Red Bulls. With three center backs being joined by fullback wingers, the formation and style requires high conditioning and the play is incredibly direct. Losada has his players pressing on defenders and attackers to catch them off guard to create chances. Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out offensively quite yet for D.C.
The team has scored three goals with two of them from set pieces and rank close to the bottom in big chances created. It’s likely the United players are in a similar boat to the Black & Gold attackers with trying to get into a groove offensively. The bigger challenge D.C. has to overcome is adapting to this new system without some of its top attackers. Arriola and Ola Kamara have been out injured with the offensive focus on Yamil Asad and young Estonian striker Erik Sorga.
United is also missing two key center backs in Steven Birnbaum and Donovan Pines who won’t come back until they are fully 100 percent healthy, something Losada believes in to make sure he has players ready for his demanding system. D.C. has caused some chaos in its matches but, as seen against San Jose, if a team can crack the press, the flood gates can open.
How the Crew can win:
Columbus has had success against the high press, specifically the Red Bulls, when the team distributes passes quickly in the attack. Recently, fans have seen the Black & Gold distribute the ball slowly in the back and send longer passes to the wings as a way to counteract with heat or when teams drop low and keep their shape while defending.
The key player will be Darlington Nagbe who is the calmest and most composed player on the ball for the Crew and has the ability to quickly distribute passes to the wings to generate fast attacks. His game against the Red Bulls in the MLS Cup playoffs is a perfect example of how instrumental Nagbe is when playing against that system. He rarely losses possession and has quick decision making with the ball at his feet. That is something the rest of the Black & Gold players have to do to have success to break the high-press.
In recent matches for D.C. United, Asad has dropped deep in the midfield instead of staying wide to the left, looking to get runs going forward. If Asad continues to drop deep in the center, the left-hand side could be the place the Crew can find space. The right-side players run at United’s left so Afful and the right winger could have the time and space to work in some opportunities.
The biggest key is to be clinical. The Black & Gold haven’t been composed or clinical in the final third quite yet this season and this will be the game where they could get some offensive rhythm and confidence. The high press demands a lot of intense running and an early goal from Columbus will make D.C. open up more, causing them to push up higher. This could allow the Crew to be able to win lots of sprints if United’s players are tired, giving them a chance to get a ton of shots.