The Columbus Crew as a franchise has been historically kind to the Seattle Sounders in their short MLS history. They've never beaten the Sounders, either at home or away, and their losses have been some of Seattle's most memorable wins. Last season, a 4-0 win over the Crew in Columbus was the most emphatic of the season. It became new signing Blaise Nkufo's coming out party as he scored a hat trick and it launched the Sounders onto a 5-game MLS winning streak. Then two weeks later the Sounders beat Columbus once again in a thrilling US Open Cup final at Qwest Field.
Despite the rather one-sided nature of our competition thus far, the Crew are not a team to be taken lightly. After an offseason overhaul that had most neutrals predicting a joyless rebuilding season, the Crew have ridden a very stingy defense and timely offense to first place in the Eastern Conference standings. Their recent form has been particularly good, featuring four wins in their last five games, including victories over the Union last week and Real Salt Lake in Sandy.
The Crew's biggest impediment to maintaining their streak of success this weekend won't be their tradition of losing to Seattle. It'll be their patchwork backline. Julius James was such a revelation as a centerback partner to Chad Marshall that he relegated a competent starter in Andy Iro first to the bench and then eventually to a trade to Toronto FC. But Robert Warzycha may regret that move as a suspension for yellow card accumulation will keep James off the field this week and without Iro or Rich Balchan — who's injured — the team will have to look to a converted midfielder to fill out the defense.
And the backline isn't the only place where injuries will be consequential. The team will also be without Tony Tchani (who they got in the Iro trade) in defensive midfield and without the influential Eddie Gaven on the right wing.
The Sounders will be riding high after a momentous victory over CF Monterrey in Mexico this week. The fact that Seattle managed the win while fielding a mostly reserve team will mean that Seattle should be able to field a potent, well-rested side despite the midweek game. Mauro Rosales — arguably Seattle's most dangerous player this season — will be fully rested on the right wing. Erik Friberg should be a like-for-like replacement for Brad Evans in the midfield. Osvaldo Alonso only played a few minutes in Mexico as Servando Carrasco helmed his traditional defensive midfielder role. Both Fredy Montero and Mike Fucito are available and rested and are likely to make up Seattle's frontline again. James Riley already got his traditional one game of rest per season against FC Dallas last weekend, so he should be good to go. The only area where fatigue may prevent a typical starter is the left wing, where Alvaro Fernandez put a lot of work in against Monterrey (including scoring the winning goal). Don't be surprised to see him start the game on the bench and Lamar Neagle on the field.
Tactically, Columbus play in a 4-1-3-2, with Kevin Burns tucked in as a defensive midfielder in front of the back four. Emmanuel Ekpo plays in front if him in the central midfield between wingers Robbie Rogers and typically Eddie Gaven, though rookie Justin Meram has been playing in Gaven's absence. In front of them Andres Mendoza and Emilio Renteria are a dangerous attacking pair.
Columbus' biggest lack is an offensive playmaker, as they haven't been able to replace Schelotto. Ekpo is more likely to make short passes around the central midfield than play any dangerous through balls or crosses. That creates a vacuum in the offensive midfield and like any good vacuum it tends to suck in the matter around it. That means both wingers tend to get pulled centrally to build attack at the top of the box. And Renteria tends to get pulled back into the midfield to receive the ball. Their offense is built to run through the wings via early balls out to the sideline as well as big balls over the top for the beefy Renteria to bring down. Both are dangers that Seattle is equipped to deal with and Columbus' biggest threats on Saturday may have to come through set pieces or (FSM forbid) a penalty.
- Rogers vs Riley - With Gaven out, Rogers is the key to the Columbus offense. Riley is a solid MLS right back and he's tireless, but he's not a shutdown defender and he'll get beaten a few times a game. Fortunately, Rogers' penchant for cutting into the center early and often means that Riley will be able to rely on Alonso as well as the central defenders to help him gang up on the quick winger.
- Renteria vs Jhon Kennedy Hurtado - Renteria came out of last week's game early due to a quad strain, but it sounds like he'll be good to start in Seattle. If so, he'll be the Crew's other significant scoring threat. He's a bear around the box and can control a ball in tight spaces and get off dangerous shots. Hurtado is adept at picking out balls in the air and he shouldn't have to worry too much about Renteria blowing by and beating him for speed.
- Rosales vs Josh Gardner - Gardner was a solid left midfielder for the USL Sounders in their championship season in 2007, and he still may be a solid USL left midfielder, but the Crew are asking him to play left back in MLS. He's understandably skilled at coming forward and overlapping a frequently tucked-in Robbie Rogers to help in the attack, but his defensive skills are raw. Rosales, on the other hand, is not raw. He's a cultured veteran attacker and he should be able to get by and around Gardner frequently to put in dangerous crosses. Unfortunately, with a likely formation that features two small forwards and no Fernandez, it'll be tough to do much with those crosses, so Rosales may have to cut in and take some shots himself.