As long as Sigi Schmid coaches the Sounders, you can expect trips to Columbus to be interesting.
In case you're achingly unaware, Schmid was the head man in Columbus from 2006-08. His tenure culminated in the MLS Double -- becoming the fourth team, and the first since 2000, to win both the Supporter's Shield and the MLS Cup in the same season. Schmid followed that up by turning down the Crew's contract extension offer and instead became the Sounders' first MLS coach. In response, the Crew filed tampering charges against the Sounders. Although the league found no formal wrongdoing, they did force the Sounders to financially compensate the Crew.
With that wound still fresh, the Sounders went undefeated against the Crew last year, including a 1-0 victory at Crew Stadium late in the season. The victory was preserved when the normally automatic Guillermo Barros Schelotto missed a 81' penalty, a sequence in which Tyrone Marshall was yellow carded for delaying the kick and was roundly accused of creating a divot on the penalty spot before Schelotto's attempt.
While Schmid has repeatedly said he intends to treat this year's game as just another match against one of the top team's in the league, the Crew seem to have other ideas. Tonight, the Crew are breaking out a sort of promotions Double: serving $1 beers and handing out plastic megaphones for a promotion deemed "Silence the Sounders."
Throw in the facts that the Crew and Sounders have been two of the best teams in MLS since the World Cup break, that they are scheduled to meet in the U.S. Open Cup final and that they would play each other in the first round of the playoffs if the season ended today, and you have all the makings of a quality rivalry.
"Last year there was all the hoopla around it, but that’s over," Schmid said this week on ExtraTime Radio. "They are a very good team, a very consistent team. We are still on the verge of trying to get there. I don’t think we’re that far away. I think we’re a very good team. Our consistency still needs to be there, but if we can keep our group together for another year I think we’ll be exactly where we want to be.
"It’s going to be a good game because Columbus is a good team. "
Many of the players who make the Crew a good team were either brought in by Schmid or were there during his tenure. There are still 14 players on the Crew's 24-man roster who played under Schmid in 2008. That group accounts for 27 of the Crew's 33 MLS goals and includes Columbus' top two scoring threats, Schelotto and Steven Lenhart.
Any follower of MLS should be well aware of Schelotto. Since coming to MLS in 2007, the Argentinian has scored 30 goals and registered 42 assists in 96 regular season matches. At 37 years old, he shows few signs of slowing down. Only Fredy Montero (10 goals, nine assists) and Sebastian Le Toux (11 goals, 10 assists) have both more goals and more assists than Schelotto (seven goals, eight assists). Schelotto is also on pace to set a MLS career high in minutes played.
The Crew offense very much runs through Schelotto, who usually plays as a withdrawn forward in a similar fashion as Montero.
Also like Montero, Schelotto has seemed to benefit from being able to play behind a capable target forward. This year, that role has been largely filled by Lenhart. After two seasons of being more of an energy player off the bench, Lenhart has suddenly emerged as a reliable goal scorer. Although he's chopped off that blonde 'fro that had become his calling card, his five goals have made him recognizable for entirely different reasons.
Lenhart continues to contribute mostly through physical play, but his efforts haven't always been rewarded. This year, he's already set a career high in minutes played and goals scored. In the six matches he's played since July 31, Lenhart has notched four goals (his other goal came against the Sounders on May 1). Against Los Angeles last week, Lenhart nearly connected on a pair of early chances that could have significantly altered the outcome. The physical pairing of Jeff Parke and Patrick Ianni would seem to be a good matchup for Lenhart, but he's a player that should definitely be watched.
The other main cog in the Crew offense is someone with whom the Sounders are far less familiar. Emilio Renteria has only played 23 minutes in three contests against the Sounders, and represents four of the Crew's non-Schmid era goals. The Venezuelan has also missed time this year while nursing injuries and spending some time with his national team. When he's been on the field, though, he's been as effective as any other player. His 1.10 PP90 is the best mark of any player on the team and he provides some speed that is otherwise lacking. There's a good chance he'll start on the right wing.
Like most teams Schmid has helped build, the Crew also get some help on offense from their defensive players. On the right side, Frankie Hejduk continues to get forward frequently, although his ability to recover seems to have waned. Centerbacks Chad Marshall and Andy Iro have combined for four goals and 21 shots, while playing solid defense. Left back will likely be filled by Shaun Francis as Gino Padula has yet to make an appearance since July 3 and is still nursing an ankle sprain.
Despite the fact that injuries have kept any of the Crew defenders from starting more than 19 matches -- the Sounders have two with at least 22 starts, by contrast -- Will Hesmer has still managed to have another solid season. His 10 shutouts are the second best total in MLS and while he's saving a lower percentage of shots than we're used to seeing (his .699 save percentage is nearly .100 worse than his mark from last year), he's also allowing fewer goals (his .96 goals against average is just .01 higher than his career-best mark of last season).
To be sure, the Crew have shown some chinks in their armor. Their shot-differential is merely middling (+.52 per match is seventh best) and they've had trouble against Western Conference teams (no wins in eight trips to the mountain and pacific time zones), but they have compiled the fourth best goal differential (+10) and have claimed 29 of 36 possible home points. The Sounders seem to match up well here, but we should expect nothing short of a battle.