Colorado Rapids head to Columbus on Saturday to face the Crew looking to extend their (mini)unbeaten run to three games. Crew Stadium has not been that kind to the Rapids historically so it will take some effort to come out of there with a result. As one of the preseason possibilities for the MLS Cup, Columbus Crew haven't exactly started off like a house on fire with only three wins under their belt and sitting 5th in the East. And out of these three wins, two have been against the absolutely horrific D.C. United, so can we assume they aren't all that?
I wouldn't say so. They still possess a lot of threats going forward in particular that could damage any team in the league with Federico Higuain and Jairo Arrieta providing the firepower and Eddie Gaven on creating duties. Over the off-season the Crew improved their roster massively with a handful of signings in key positions including Glauber and Tyson Wahl to strengthen the back line as well as Agustin Viana and Matias Sanchez to solidify the midfield. The only significant addition for the Crew in attack has been Dominic Oduro heading over from Chicago Fire, adding an extra dimension to an already threatening Crew attack. On top of that, there weren't any considerable departures from Crew Stadium despite the quality of the additions indicating Columbus' desire to add another MLS Cup to their cabinet.
There isn't likely to be many surprises from Robert Warzycha on Saturday. He is pretty stuck in his 4-4-1-1 with Higuain in the hole behind Arrieta who will spearhead the attack. Nathan Sturgis will have to be on his game again as Higuain's movement will make him difficult to pick up as he floats in between the defence and midfield looking to pick up the ball and shoot/play through-balls. Arrieta, if he somehow manages to unlearn his innate ability to be constantly offside, is a real threat with his boundless energy and terrier-like movement keeping the defenders on their toes. Neither Arrieta nor Higuain have been the main goal threat this season, though, with Oduro sitting as Columbus' top scorer with four goals in the 2013 campaign. Oduro and his ridiculous pace have exposed many a defence so far, leaving them looking on helpless whilst he streaks in behind.
The two central midfielders in the 4-4-1-1 sit particularly deep in Warzycha's system with both as defensive midfielders who at times, albeit rarely, support attacking moves but typically instigate them by laying the balls off to the more attack-minded players. Danny O'Rourke and either Viana or Tony Tchani (depending on whether Viana fills in at left-back) are the centre-midfield pairing that are tasked with getting a grip of the Rapids guys and will clog up the central areas of the park with the aim of stopping the Rapids creativity. To counter this, the Rapids should overload on the flanks as there will be more space to engineer attacking opportunities as well as have a significant pace advantage over their opposite numbers. Both Wahl and Josh Williams aren't exactly blessed with an abundance of pace and could be prime targets for the Rapids frontline to focus their efforts, especially if DeShorn Brown gets the start. He will absolutely roast those two given the opportunity and if fit he certainly has to go straight onto the left side of the attack. Another thing from what I've seen of Columbus this season is that these fullbacks tend to push too far forward with their lack of pace meaning they leave themselves rather exposed on the counterattack which we have been adept at playing so far this season.
Glauber and Chad Marshall are a pretty firm combination at centre-back and may have the edge over Edson Buddle who can usually use his strength to unsettle defenders. Out of the two, I'd pick out Glauber as the most likely to make an error and as he is prone to a little moment of madness so if pressured could give up an opportunity or two. There's little point in playing any high balls forward as all four across the back are of decent size and will be up for any aerial battles that may take place.
Both Gaven and Oduro on the wings for the Crew pose a significant threat to the Rapids hopes of holding out for a cleansheet at Crew Stadium. Gaven has notched three assists so far and his expertise at creating goalscoring opportunities for both himself and teammates mean that whoever is at right fullback on Saturday will have to close down Gaven and stop him at source before he can deliver into the box. Despite one of Chris Klute's main advantages being his pace, he will still have his hands full with one of the quickest guys in the league in Dominic Oduro running at him all game. He will need to enlist the help of whoever plays on the left of midfield to give him some support as doubling up on Oduro will negate his pace.
For Colorado to create chances going forward it has to be down the flanks. By utilizing the pace of whoever plays on the wing in the 4-3-3 (hopefully Brown on one side), the Rapids will be able to isolate the fullbacks and get in behind them to create for Buddle to add the finishing touch. The centre of midfield will be pretty congested and the only space that will be left there is on the counter if Viana/O'Rourke/Tchani lose their discipline momentarily. This means Dillon Powers and co. won't have any time on the ball and will need to be simple in their distribution as the Crew will be closing them down all over.
At the other end, despite his quiet start, Higuain still poses the biggest danger particularly as he is not easy to pick up. If Sturgis and the central defenders fail to communicate as to who is picking him up then he will cause a lot of damage to Rapids hopes of gaining a result. If he is shut down and the Rapids defence performs to the standard that it has done recently (and Clint Irwin continues being ridiculous) then I've got a sneaky feeling the boys could take the three points back on the flight home with them.