The Columbus Crew has lost five games in a row and recently hasn’t resembled anything close to the side that won the MLS Cup in 2020. The Crew now welcome the team's foes from that MLS Cup Final in the Seattle Sounders on Saturday evening.
Seattle enters the match on a two-game winning streak and are on the top of the Western Conference. These two sides are on complete opposite paths at the moment as Seattle is heating up for a run at the Supporters’ Shield, while the Black & Gold haven’t won in almost three weeks. It should make for an interesting game at Lower.com Field.
Here’s what you can expect from each side before they kick off on Saturday.
Seattle Sounders at a Glance:
Record: 11-6-3 39 points
League Form: W-W-D-L-L
Leading Scorer: Raúl Ruidíaz (14)
Assist Leader: Joao Paulo (7)
Player to Watch: Raúl Ruidíaz
Ruidíaz is on a tear in Seattle’s 2021 campaign, tallying a league-leading 14 goals To put this number into perspective, the Crew has scored 21 goals as a team and three of those have been own goals.
The Sounders forward has become one of the marquee players in MLS since his arrival in July of 2018. Since that time, Ruidíaz has scored 57 goals in 88 matches for Seattle.
Ruidíaz’s has a flare for the dramatic and often can pull world-class finishes out of nowhere, but is also a beneficiary of the service he receives from his teammates. Players like Nicolás Lodeiro, Cristian Roldan and Joao Paulo have made a habit of finding Ruidíaz in space and letting him take care of the rest.
The Black & Gold backline will need to be well aware of Rudiaz’s whereabouts in this match. The Peruvian has three goals in the last two matches and is returning to his goal-scoring form after a brief lull earlier this season. In addition, Seattle has not lost when Ruidíaz has found the back of the net so far in 2021.
How Seattle Sounders play:
The Sounders are led by Brian Schmetzer who has been at the helm since August of 2016. Schmetzer and his staff have an uncanny ability to get results. Whether it be outscoring opponents in a wild back-and-forth match or playing a much more controlled defensive style, Schmetzer is adept at setting his team up to win. Despite the team’s flexibility, there are usually a few consistencies with the Sounders.
Seattle typically tries to maintain an expansive shape when in possession, much like Columbus. With the ball, the Sounders make subtle changes to help create and attack different spaces. The most notable of these is the movement of Seattle’s attacking players. Typically, at least one attacking player, whether it be Roldan, Freddy Montero, Lodeiro or someone else, looks to move into a more advanced position to accompany Ruidíaz up top. While doing this, the Sounders often move their outside backs into an advanced attacking position.
In addition to this, Seattle’s movement in the midfield is also central to the team’s identity in possession. Typically, Joao Paulo drops closer to the backline to help circulate the ball in possession and create space for Roldan and Lodeiro to attack in the central midfield. This movement also allows space for Ruidíaz to exploit in the center of the field.
The Sounders have a big emphasis on creating space in the center of the pitch for their best players to exploit. Thus, Seattle often looks to get the ball into these central areas as quickly and as often as possible. The Sounders are also notably dangerous when in offensive transition as well. Players like Ruidíaz, Lodeiro and Roldan excel in space and typically are able to find ample amounts of it in transition.
Defensively, Seattle is much improved from previous years. In fact, the Sounders rank first in MLS in both goals conceded per game and shutouts. Typically, Seattle is not a team that presses high up the field. The pressing tendencies that the Crew recently saw from the New York Red Bulls and D.C. United are unlikely to be seen in this game.
In fact, the Sounders will likely set up in a lower defensive block against the Black & Gold. In doing so, Seattle will be able to stay compact defensively and allow Columbus to move the ball up the field and then attack the vacated space behind the backline upon winning possession of the ball.
How the Crew can win:
The Black & Gold are up against the wall in this match. The Sounders are one of the best sides in the league this year and are heating up heading into this game. Contrastly, Columbus has slumped of late. However, there are a few things the Crew can do to try and hurt Seattle on Saturday.
First, the Black & Gold will need to be able to control the flow of this match. More specifically, slow the game down. The last thing Columbus wants is to get into an open, back-and-forth type of game with Seattle, as the Sounders are far better suited for a game featuring a lot of transition moments.
Instead, the Crew should look to play at a slower tempo by keeping possession whenever possible as well as staying compact defensively. In doing so, Seattle will be forced to defend for long periods of time, which the team is not used to doing, and will have to break down the Black & Gold in possession rather than in transition.
Secondly, set pieces could be the great equalizer for Columbus in this match. The Crew has been better in this phase of the game so far in 2021, specifically on attacking set pieces. One can remember the chances Columbus created against Seattle on set pieces in MLS Cup 2020 and the Crew should look to do so again in this match, especially considering the struggles in creating chances in the run of play.
The Black & Gold need to lean into these set pieces and look to draw as many free kicks and corners as possible to allow themselves a chance to attack the Sounders. It’s worth mentioning that the typical Seattle lineup doesn’t feature a ton of height either. This is an area the Crew can exploit as well.
Lastly, Columbus needs to have a renewed focus on maintaining possession of the ball in the final third. In 2020, the Black & Gold did a great job of this, leading to some great team goals. In 2021 however, the Crew have not done nearly as good a job in this department.
Oftentimes, turnovers from the likes of Lucas Zelarayam, Pedro Santos and the rest of the Crew attackers kill attacks before they are even able to start. In addition, these turnovers in the attacking third can often lead to counter-attacking moments for the opposition, which is something Columbus has struggled with this year.