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Scouting Report: How to sink the Columbus Crew’s boat

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What to watch for while you are watching Q13 or ROOT Sports NW on Wednesday.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Seattle Sounders FC Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Who You’ll Watch

The Seattle Sounders hit the road for a brief one-game, mid-week road trip to the Midwest to take on the Columbus Crew SC. This will be the only regular season meeting between the two clubs. Seattle is coming off of a 1-0 win over the Portland Timbers while the Crew are coming off of a 5-0 loss on the road against Toronto FC. The Sounders beat the Crew last season 1-0 at CenturyLink last season behind Jordan Morris’ goal in the 88th minute. The Sounders are 5-3-3 all-time against the Crew and have scored 19 goals (9 at Columbus) and have allowed 12 (4 at Columbus).

Columbus sits in 6th place in the East (19 points in 14 games played, good for 1.36 ppg), while Seattle sits in 8th place (with 16 points in 13 games played, good for 1.23 ppg).

Columbus has four players listed on the injury report: Gaston Sauro (left PCL surgery, out for season) and Ben Swanson (right ankle surgery, out for season) are listed as out, while Ethan Finlay (left knee contusion) and Artur (left thigh strain) are listed as questionable. The Sounders have Roman Torres (left hamstring strain), Henry Wingo (right ankle sprain), and Will Bruin (elbow dislocation) as out. Aaron Kovar (groin surgery), despite making the bench last week, is still listed as questionable. Also missing for Seattle, due to USMNT call-ups, will be Clint Dempsey and Jordan Morris.

Crew Form: W-L-W-L-L

Top Scorers: Justin Meram and Ola Kamara, 7 goals

Top Assist Leaders: Federico Higuain and Meram, 4 assists

Notable Columbus Roster Changes:

Out: Tyson Wahl, Conor Casey, Steve Clark, Corey Ashe, Michael Parkhurst, Tony Tchani

In: Kekuta Manneh, Josh Williams, Niko Hansen, Artur

What to Watch For

There was once a time when male model Greg Berhalter was thought to be the next great American hope at coach. There was also once a time when Higuain was considered a top-5 player in the league. Both those times have passed.

Berhalter has struggled to reproduce the success he enjoyed when he first entered the MLS. In many respects, their struggles have mirrored the Sounders. While they have obvious talent at many positions, the talent struggles to gel in a way that produces goals when the defense is holding it together, and when the goals come the defense seems to forget how to stay together. It has also fallen off due to players like Ethan Finley falling into a deep funk, players like Higuain aging, and DP Jonathan Mensah looking for all the world like a very large top.

They typically line up in a 4-2-3-1, with a narrow midfield and a B2B (Wil Trapp) next to a DM (Artur). Trapp, for all of his talent, struggles to give preference to the defensive responsibilities he’s tasked with as his primary mission, and the the defensive issues cascade from there. As much as the back four looks to lack talent, it also lacks game smarts, and are as often caught ball watching as they are spun and beaten by a simple tap-past-and-run move.

Offensively there is every reason to think they will be dangerous. Between Meram, Higuain, Finlay, and Kamara, Columbus would seem to have a threatening squad capable of scoring on any team in the league. In function, this is far from the case. Finlay has been so far from his form of the last couple years he’s become a late-game sub. Higuain seems to have gone to the Andrea Pirlo school of soccer and lost his will to chase the ball consistently. Meram and Kamara have had success individually, but have also struggled to finish average-level chances.

Destroy the Middle (and Meram v Evans): It’s unlikely the Crew attempt the 4-1-4-1 they ran out last week (a theoretically strong tactical move undone by unfamiliarity and poor finishing), though injuries may force Berhalter’s hand. The lack of quality on the outside puts extra emphasis on the middle, and, as a result, the middle struggles when pressure is applied as no useful outlet exists. The OBs certainly get forward, but their efforts typically leave much to be desired.

Chad Marshall and Gustav Svensson possess more than enough skill to contain Kamara, who is nowhere near the holdup forward that Fanendo Adi is, but whose movement is certainly good enough to give them problems. Marshall and Svensson will want to be careful not to be drawn too far upfield; Kamara has more than a couple great goals from running onto looping balls over the top.

Thus, once again Osvaldo Alonso and Cristian Roldan will be called upon to muddy the waters in the middle to kill off the offense. Their pressure in the center third should aim to force these balls early, or force them sideways. Brad Evans will need to carefully watch Meram, who is capable of playing both OM and LAM, and smart enough to choose which is the better role for the moment. If Evans is entirely focused on containing Meram, however, this presents a different problem.

Use the right side of the field - Here’s the outfield player actions map from this past weekend from MLSsoccer.com & Opta, excluding CBs:

Sounders outfield player actions map from 5/28/2017 versus the Portland Timbers
MLSsoccer.com & Opta

There are a few issues in this picture, but the one I’m going to focus on is usage of the right side. The Sounders regressed to using a 5 yard-wide strip (possibly an exaggeration) of the left side for a significant portion of Saturday’s match. Columbus absolutely is good enough to defend a team that lets opponents push them into a sideline. Their imbalance constantly works against them in every conceivable way. Why the players insist on doing this so consistently is beyond me.

With the question mark at forward this will be extra critical. The easiest way to mitigate some of the lost forward momentum (as you can see from the map, there hasn’t been a ton in the final third) will be to spread the field enough to create space between defenders. Joevin Jones is not capable of forever carrying the burden of the entirety of Seattle’s offensive “width” - a thing that doesn’t really exist when the rest of the team collapses to the side as well.

What do the Sounders do without a forward? Dave took a look at that here, and, spoiler alert, you probably won’t love any of the options. For a team that struggles to put the ball in the net even with a forward on the field, missing its most prolific shooter and it’s only speed option is not a great place to be. With the Crew’s propensity for pushing forward, it’s a great time to embrace the counter. Columbus’ mids are easily drawn upfield (particularly Higauin), and their defensive issues are exacerbated in transition as a result.

Whatever lineup Seattle goes with, they should have numerical advantage opportunities on the counter at least a few times, which should give the slightest hope of better than a draw.

Expected Lineups

Seattle: Stefan Frei; Jones, Marshall, Svensson, Evans; Some combination of Alonso, Roldan, Nicolas Lodeiro, Harry Shipp, Fernandez, and ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Columbus: Zack Steffen; Waylon Francis, Mensah, Nicolai Naess, Harrison Afful; Trapp, Abu; Meram, Higuain, Manneh; Kamara

How to Watch

Date/Time: Wednesday, May 31 4:30 p.m.

Venue: MAPFRE Stadium

Television: Q13 FOX, ROOT Sports NW (outside of Seattle)

Radio: El Rey 1360 AM (Spanish)