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Scratching the Chalkboard: Scouting Columbus Crew

Last year's MLS Cup finalists arrive to Frisco in not the best of form, but a tough game still awaits FCD.

Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

The black and gold of Columbus Crew have not had a good start to 2016 with two defeats and a draw from their opening three games. Expectations are high again for the Crew this year after making it to the MLS Cup final last year and having kept most of their important pieces together, but it hasn't been a very rosy beginning to the campaign for them.

Nevertheless, they didn't begin well last year either, winning just one of their opening five games and still ending the season hosting the MLS Cup final even if it didn't end in success. They remain one of the most talented teams in the Eastern Conference and they certainly won't be an easy test for an FC Dallas side that hasn't lost at home since last August.

Crew's left wing dilemma

Despite their problems, Columbus will likely continue to lineup in their usual 4-2-3-1 formation with the only real question mark being who will Gregg Berhalter prefer on the left flank, Justin Meram or Hector Jimenez. Meram, who is the regular there, likes to roam more from his wide position into central areas and attempts more dribbles which could unsettle Dallas' sturdy defense. Jimenez prefers to hug the touchline like a traditional winger and puts in more work on the defensive side which could come more in handy against Dallas' right side with Ryan Hollingshead and Michael Barrios both playing well lately. We all saw how well that worked out for Houston Dynamo and Andrew Wenger in particular in Game 2 last month.

Left graphic: Justin Meram v. Chicago Fire (Game 3) - Right graphic: Hector Jimenez v. Portland Timbers (Game 1)

(Green - Tackles and successful passes, Red - Unsuccessful passes and open play crosses, Tackles lost, Blue - Interceptions, Orange - Recoveries, Yellow - Key passes, Purple - Clearances)

The graphics above show both players' defensive plays and involvements as well as their distribution and possession plays in the attacking half. While there isn't a major difference in their defending games, the differences in the way they play are pretty clear: Meram likes to tuck inside more while Jimenez opts to stay wider and open up the pitch.

Arguments could be formed for both players to start this game, but ultimately it depends on what Berhalter wants to go for specifically. If he wants to get more out of Columbus' attacking game and stockpile on the Dallas defense where they're vulnerable, Meram is the better choice. If he wants someone who will put in his fair share of work defensively and avoid 2v1 situations on the flanks with his fullbacks, Jimenez might be the better option.

Considering that Meram is the usual starter here when available and that Columbus hasn't started the year well, my bet is that he will get the nod.

Right flank overload

Regardless of who's chosen, it's no secret that Columbus like to formulate their attacks and play mainly through their right side with Federico HiguainEthan Finlay, and Harrison Afful all overloading that flank. This will likely be the case once again tonight and if Meram starts as expected, then we can expect something similar again to last week. Barrios will provide the runs and be the main outlet for counter attacks while Fabian Castillo will drop a bit deeper to support Maynor Figueroa against the Crew trident. We may also see Victor Ulloa slide over to that side to provide some extra help too. It's also worth mentioning that Higuain may occasionally drift centrally and over to the left, as the below graphic shows, so Carlos Gruezo may be double-tasked as well.

The graphic below depicts Columbus' distribution and dribbling attempts in the attacking half against Chicago Fire:

And against Portland Timbers:

(Green - Successful passes and dribbles, Red - Unsuccessful passes and dribbles, Yellow - Key passes)

So it's a safe bet that we can expect more of the same from the Crew with that triangle and a concerted focus on Dallas' left side against an ageing Figueroa who may not have the legs to deal with that threat so help will be needed from his teammates. This is where Castillo comes in and judging by this below graphic shared in last week's post-game Chalkboard by Jason Poon, it's exactly the kind of display he'll have to produce once again and sacrifice his offensive game a lot for the greater good of the team.

(Green - Tackles, Orange - Recoveries, Blue - Interceptions)

Stopping the trio of Afful, Finlay, and Higuain is integral in any attempt to beat the Crew and by doing so, you've already done half the job. It won't just take Castillo, Figueroa, and Ulloa to stop them as their attacking midfielders like to roam and interchange positions often. It'll take a team effort, but if we see a similar defensive performance from Castillo akin to the one in the U.S. capital last week, then chances are that the Crew will find it hard to have success on that right flank.

FCD can beat the Crew at their own game

Seeing as Columbus like to attack primarily down their right side, Dallas can hit them back through the exact same way by venturing down the right with Hollingshead, Barrios, and Mauro Diaz. We saw this strategy work out well last week against D.C. United and since Columbus are a team that likes to keep the ball at their feet, Dallas' deployed counter attacking strategy could work well again here.

This is how Diaz, Barrios, and Hollingshead distributed the ball and attacked D.C.'s left flank:

With Meram in the lineup, Waylon Francis won't get quite the support that he would from Jimenez and on top of that, the defensive midfield pairing of Tony Tchani and Wil Trapp tend to wander over towards their right more rather than covering the central and left areas, as we can see below with their defensive dashboards in the Chicago game:

(Green X - Successful tackle, Green Diamond - Interceptions, Green Circle - Successful clearance, Orange Circle - Failed clearance, Black Triangle - Fouls committed)

While this is likely to neutralize Castillo's offensive productivity even further should the Colombian be playing deep as he did last week, it is likely to open up room for the aforementioned trio on the other side and that could create loads of possibilities. Maybe Berhalter saw last week's game and will adjust his tactics accordingly to ensure that doesn't happen, but on the evidence so far, he'll likely stick to his ways and continue with the same approach here.

Conclusion

Columbus will have plenty of possession and unlike D.C., they'll pose a lot more danger with it as they have several proven match winners in their ranks who can trouble Dallas' defense. While Oscar Pareja is likely to continue with the counter attacking strategy which has worked out well in the last two games, he'll have to make it clear to the players that possession cannot be ceded cheaply to a side of their quality and Dallas will need to keep the ball better and for longer periods. The result in the capital last week may have been impressive, but it wasn't without its faults and some of the mistakes made there could easily be punished here by a stronger team.

Otherwise, the game is set up in more ways than one to be something in between the Montreal Impact and D.C. games. The team is surely aware of Columbus' threat just as they were of Montreal's so we can expect tighter defensive organization while the potential imbalance on the Crew's left side could be something to exploit to the same effect as against D.C. It'll be a tough test of the team's credentials against a legitimate contender for the Eastern Conference, but it also won't be easy for them to crack the code and beat Dallas on their own patch. A tactical, hard battle is what we're expecting and it'll take a moment of quality to tilt this game towards one of the teams from the decisive players on display.