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Massive Scouting Report: D.C. United

What it takes for the Black & Gold to get back to winning.

MLS: New England Revolution at D.C. United Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Winless in the team’s last five MLS matches, the Columbus Crew look to get back to winning this Saturday, hosting longtime Eastern Conference rivals D.C. United. D.C. enters the match in a weird spot after firing former head coach Hernan Losada on April 20. Despite this, United was victorious last time out against the New England Revolution, signaling the end of the team’s four-match losing streak in MLS play.

The two teams involved in this match have struggled, are lacking a true identity and desperately need three points. Here’s what to expect from what should be an interesting match in Columbus.

D.C. United at a Glance:

Record: 3-0-4, 9 points

League Form: W-L-L-L-L

Leading Scorer: Ola Kamara (4)

Assist Leader: Taxiarchris Fountas, Julian Gressel, Andy Najar, Nigel Robertha (1)

Player to Watch: Michael Estrada

Estrada is new to the MLS after joining D.C. on loan this past February from Mexican side Toluca. The 26-yea-old Ecuadorian international has hit the ground running so far in his time in MLS with three goals in six matches, including a goal last week against New England. Estrada has become a regular fixture in the Ecuadorian national team and played a prominent role in the Ecuadorians qualifying for the World Cup.

Estrada is a prototypical striker in the modern game. He has the ability to score with both feet, as well as being adept at finishing aerial balls. Estrada’s movement in the penalty box is excellent and often puts him in positions to score with little to no pressure. In addition to his movement to create space for himself, Estrada also excels at beating offside traps and running in behind defenders, with a clear path to goal. Despite most of his goals coming from 12 yards and in, Estrada has also shown the ability to finish accurately from outside the 18-yard box.

Estrada was United’s biggest offseason addition and it’s easy to see why. If the Crew is going to be successful on Saturday, the team needs to keep Estrada quiet for the duration of the match.

How D.C. United plays:

Having just parted ways with Losada, this is a little bit up in the air. However, in his first match as interim manager, Chad Ashton hasn’t deviated much from his predecessor. Ashton has opted to continue to use the 3-4-3/3-4-2-1 shape that Losada implemented. In addition, much of the strategy has remained the same.
Defensively, D.C. looks to press the opposition high up the field in an effort to cause discomfort for the opponents in possession and potentially create turnovers that lead to dangerous opportunities. One wrinkle the team showed last week was a more timed press. Specifically, when New England passed the ball to one of the outside backs, that was a cue for United to high-pressure system.

When D.C. has the ball, the team is one of the more direct attacking sides in the league. United is usually looking to get in behind the opponent’s backline as quickly as possible in an effort to create goal-scoring opportunities.

Crew fans should be pretty familiar with this type of play as it is pretty similar to the way Sporting Kansas City played last week against the Black & Gold. Aside from a few different wrinkles and adjustments, Columbus can expect a similar style of play from D.C. this week.

How the Crew can win:

This is a tough game for the Crew. Obviously, the Black & Gold aren’t in great form. In addition to that, United isn’t traditionally a tough team to play against because of the team’s in-your-face style of play and the intensity with which the team plays. It’s also a very difficult match for the Crew to prepare for as Ashton could theoretically have made several different changes to shake things up now that he has had more than two days to prepare for the game.

Assuming there aren’t wholesale changes to D.C.’s style of play and tactics, here are a few things for the Black & Gold to focus on.

The Crew’s attack has been abysmal in the last four MLS matches, with exactly zero goals scored. That being said, Columbus did have significant success and offensive output against teams defending with three central defenders and two wing backs earlier this year in the Vancouver Whitecaps and the San Jose Earthquakes.
Columbus can ignite its attack when facing D.C. on Saturday, thanks to a similar defensive setup. A huge part of the Crew’s success against San Jose and Vancouver was finding what head coach Caleb Porter calls the pocket winger. Essentially, this refers to a winger tucking inside and playing just in front of the opponent’s backline. When the ball finds its way to these areas, the Crew has the ability to turn and run at the defense, switch the point of attack or play a ball to an outside back or striker running in behind. All of these are good attacking options that cause discomfort to opposing back lines. Columbus’ central midfielders, outside backs and center backs will need to look to play balls into these pocket wingers early and often in order to jumpstart the Crew attack.

Defensively, the Black & Gold need to be adept at defending the central midfield. This has been a theme for a number of weeks, including last week. No matter which defensive shape the Crew chooses to employ on Saturday, the Black & Gold will have a numerical disadvantage in the midfield. D.C.’s attacking shape is essential to play with two box-to1box central midfielders and two attacking midfielders. With this disadvantage, the Columbus midfielders need to do a good job of blocking passing lanes and applying pressure to the ball with good pressing angles. In addition, the Crew backline needs to do an excellent job of reading the play and stepping up into the midfield in order to help stop D.C. attacks and win the ball back.

Lastly, the Crew needs to focus on winning 50/50 duels and the resulting second balls. As mentioned, United is direct in attack. The main way D.C. chooses to progress the ball is by playing long, direct balls into the frontline. When these long balls are challenged, the second ball that results from the challenge is hugely important. If the Black & Gold are able to win the majority of these second balls, they’ll be able to dominate possession and control the flow and tempo of the game.