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Massive Scouting Report: D.C. United

A look at the visiting longtime Eastern Conference rivals.

MLS: Toronto FC at D.C. United Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Columbus Crew welcomes Wayne Rooney and D.C. United to Field on Saturday evening for the second match of the 2023 Major League Soccer season. Similar to Columbus, D.C. has gone through significant change since hiring Rooney last July with two new Designated Players signings from England, forward Christian Benteke from Crystal Palace and midfielder Mateusz Klich from Leeds United. D.C. also brought in former Crew winger/left back Pedro Santos.

While the Black & Gold dropped their first game of the season last week, the Black & Red had an epic comeback at home, defeating Toronto FC 3-2 after being down 2-1 late in the match. Rooney will hope that momentum will carry over to this match, while Columbus head coach Wilfried Nancy looks for his team to build on the positives of Week 1 and a better result.

D.C. United at a Glance

2022 Record: 1-0-0, 3 points

League Form: W

2023 Leading Scorer: Mateusz Klich, Ted Ku-Dipietro, Christian Benteke (1)

2023 Assist Leader: Mohanad Jeahze (2)

Player to Watch: Mateusz Klich

The talented winger, Taxi Fountas, would have normally been the player to watch but he is sidelined with an injury for a couple more weeks.

Klich is a deep-lying playmaker who pulls the strings from a central midfielder or defensive central midfielder position. Once his team wins the ball, D.C. looks to get it to Klich who can lay out a wonderful long ball to start a dangerous counter attack. In his early days with Leeds, Klich played as a center back.

Klich’s vision and passing prowess allow United to play him higher upfield than he has played in the past. Klich has plenty of freedom to move up the field as midfielder Russell Canouse provides defensive coverage. Klich scored D.C.’s first goal of the season from outside of the penalty box on a wonderful shot. Toronto allowed Klich to receive a simple pass at midfield and to carry the ball and shoot unchallenged. The Columbus midfielders will want to keep their eyes on Klich, not allowing him to drive at the goal without pressure.

How D.C. United plays

Nancy mentioned this week that D.C. can play both long and build through the middle of the pitch. United’s equalizing and go-ahead goals last week both came from crosses from their left back, Mohanad Jeahze. Jeahze and right back Andy Najar both push up significantly, exposing center backs that struggled against Toronto.

As Klich pushes up as well, Canouse will fall back, splitting the two center backs. As he did with the Crew, Santos has the freedom to drift somewhat centrally while right midfielder Chris Durkin can push up the wing.

At the top of the formation, Benteke and his striking partner look to get on the end of the many crosses that are served into the penalty box. Theodore Ku-Dipietro was that strike partner against Toronto.

Rooney has played both a 4-4-2 and a 4-3-3 formation in his time as United’s head coach. As Fountas remains sidelined, expect a 4-4-2 formation. Against Toronto, D.C. ceded more possession, only retaining 44 percent of the ball while serving in 17 crosses.

How the Crew can win

Columbus will need to apply defensive pressure on the wings when D.C. is in possession. Toronto failed to mark well on the flanks and allowed players to cross the ball with little to no pressure. Benteke will find a cross and put it in the back of the net if the Crew does not defend well on the wings. Also, midfielders Aidan Morris and Darlington Nagbe will need to close down Klich as he receives the ball. If the Black & Gold can get a body on Klich before he can turn upfield, this will disrupt United’s attack.

Offensively, the Black & Gold have enough talent to make the D.C. center backs miserable. United can be exposed on the counter and Columbus should attempt a break or two with forward Cucho Hernandez. D.C. played a higher defensive line last week and if they do the same on the road, the Crew should be able to break through with creative passing.

Victor Palsson, a midfielder, struggled as a center back, while Matai Akinmboni is still only 16 years old. With sophisticated passing and off-ball movements, Columbus should be able to create mismatches and confusion resulting in good chances. While D.C. did win against Toronto, United was sorely outclassed in expected goals, 0.8 to 2.3. If the Black & Gold stay composed and defensively sound, they will have chances against a D.C. backline that tended to push too far up and lacks experience at center back. Defender Steven Birnbaum was not fit enough to play a full 90 minutes last week, but could feature more against the Crew.