The Columbus Crew front office and head coach Robert Warzycha came into the 2011 season insisting that this would not be a rebuilding year, despite an offseason that to all outward appearances presaged a rebuilding year. The Crew jettisoned 11 players over the winter, and they weren't just roster filler. The casualty list included squad stalwarts like Guillermo Barros Schelotto (to Argentina), Frankie Hejduk (to the LA Galaxy), Steven Lenhart (to the San Jose Earthquakes), Gino Padula (to coaching), Brian Carroll (to the Philadelphia Union), and Adam Moffat (to the Portland Timbers). For comparison purposes, imagine that the Seattle Sounders parted with Fredy Montero, James Riley, Osvaldo Alonso, Nate Jaqua, and Leo Gonzalez in one offseason and then denied that they were rebuilding.
But now 7 games into the Crew season the question of whether this will be a contending season or simply preparation for next year is still open. The evidence largely depends on which side of the ball you want to look at. On offense, the losses of Schelotto and Lenhart have led to a predictable drop in deadliness. The Crew have only scored 7 goals in those games, and even that's a little misleading since three of those goals have come from the penalty spot. The remaining four goals from seven is the lowest rate of goals from the run of play per game in the league. Of course, the second worst team in that measure is the Philadelphia Union, who are currently 2nd in the Eastern Conference. And the Crew are staying competitive despite the low scoring output the same way the Union are staying competitive — with solid defense.
The signing of Julius James after he'd been waived by DC United may turn out to be one of the signings of the season. The central defender has paired so well with perennial Defender of the Year contender Chad Marshall that he's taken a starting spot from Andy Iro, who started nearly every game for the Crew last season. The Marshall/James pairing looks formidable, and in combination with the upgraded speed at fullback, Kevin Burns in a defensive midfielder role, and the consistent work rate of the wingers and forwards and you have a team that's difficult to break down.
That's going to only add to the Sounders' difficulties in this match. While DC United snuck up on the Sounders after an emotional and thorough Seattle win over Toronto FC on the weekend and a forgettable showing by United in their previous game against the Houston Dynamo, we go into this one knowing we have a steep hill to climb to get a result. The adversities that make this game a challenge are almost enough to fill an article themselves. There's the fact that this will be the Sounders' third game in seven days and the fact that the short stretch included one and a half trips across the country. There's the re-injury of Mauro Rosales' hamstring at RFK, which combined with the long term losses of Steve Zakuani and O'Brian White leaves the Seattle offense worryingly shorthanded. And given the visible pain that Fredy Montero was in while playing this week in a cast, no one should be surprised if he's not available to start either. There's also no doubt that Columbus will be up for this match. Schmid and Warzycha have a bit of a personal rivalry and the Crew have never beaten the Sounders in Crew stadium. The most recent game in that run was the 4-0 embarrassment last season that featured Blaise Nkufo's hat trick. Not to mention the US Open Cup victory, which means that the Sounders will be playing the two teams they've defeated in the Cup final in a 4-day span.
This has led to a sentiment among the locals that maybe the best chance for Seattle this weekend is to pack into a defensive orientation and play for the draw on the road. Dave's article calling for formation and lineup recommendations generated a lot of 4-2-3-1s, defensive versions of the Arrow, and even a 5-4-1. While it would be tedious and frustrating to follow a team that did that routinely (just ask the 10,000 showing up to Columbus games this season), I think we can forgive the team for going defensive in circumstances like these.
But Sigi's never been one to shift around the formation. Even the 'switch' that's been much discussed over the last couple of weeks in the wake of Zakuani's injury wasn't a formation change — it was just an instruction to the fullbacks to get forward more (and a switch from Leo Gonzalez to Tyson Wahl at left on the assumption that he brings more of those qualities). He has been willing to pair up Alonso with a more defensive central presence, as we saw with Nate Sturgis and Pete Vagenas last season. If he wants to do the same this weekend, you could see Servando Carrasco starting alongside Alonso. But I would be surprised by anything as novel as five defenders or a lone forward.
You could also see Roger Levesque in a starting role, as his work rate and harassing style are a good fit for a grinding game. Plus he might run into his doppelganger Eddie Gaven and the space-time continuum could rip, which would be cool to see. Mike Fucito should be fresh after sitting out a game in which the Sounders were desperate for a goal (but I'm not bitter) and if the wrist problem is really troubling Montero you could see him start in the Colombian's place.
Tactically, there are still echoes of Sigi Schmid's influence on Columbus. In their last game against the Vancouver Whitecaps, you saw something like the Arrow, with Burns in front of the back four, Rusmir as a lightly more attacking midfielder, and Dilly Duka lurking behind Emilio Renteria in the target forward spot. Robbie Rogers and Gaven started on the wings, though Gaven and Duka switched off occasionally. The offense flows primarily through the wings into Renteria who goes at goal himself or holds for late runs into the attacking area from the midfield.
- Patrick Ianni vs Renteria - Or maybe Jeff Parke or Jhon Kennedy Hurtado vs Renteria, or both. The center backs are still in rotation, and given the short week I'd guess Parke and Ianni are the pairing for Columbus. Renteria is the offensive fulcrum for Columbus. He's scored 3 of the team's 7 goals. Against Vancouver he drew a penalty, scored the penalty, and then scored the Crew's second in the run of play to account for the entirety of the Columbus offense.
- Riley vs Rogers - Renteria's been putting them in, but Rogers has been shooting them. He's got 14 shots this season and two goals and is always dangerous. Riley had a terrible game in DC — the worst of his Sounders career that I can recall. He had a number of passes directly to the opposition under minimal pressure and was responsible for marking Wolff on the goal the United striker scored. It's possible that playing behind Evans instead of Rosales or Erik Friberg has taken him off of his game, but he needs to rebound with a strong showing against Rogers.
- Alvaro Fernandez vs Sebastian Miranda - The Crew went younger by replacing Hejduk with Miranda, but not much younger. The Chilean fullback is a ripe 30 years old and likes to get forward on the overlap. He hasn't shown any particular proclivity to get beaten for pace thus far this season, and Fernandez won't trouble him nearly as much as Zakuani would have in that regard, but El Flaco will have to try to find some space to create offense around Marshall and James, since it's unlikely we'll be creating it through them.