Conifers and Citrus

Opposition Scouting Report (OSR): Look, Sir. Columbus Crew SC

He's a scout, see, and...look, I've always wanted to interview that actor. Best line ever.

See, he’s a scout and…look, I’ve always wanted to interview that actor. Best line ever.

Remember how smartly Jorge Villafana bottled up one of Columbus Crew SC’s most bothersome gadflies back in MLS Cup? You know the guy, Ethan Finlay, he of the recent, inspiring call-up to the U.S. Men’s National Team’s January camp?

Yeah, well, Villafana’s gone. Oh, and Finlay? He’ll be running headlong toward the Portland Timbers’ left back, by common consent Portland’s least nailed down spot on the field, aka, the one that’s keeping us up at night, etc. Good times. (As for Villafana, he’s still crapping all over the Los Angeles Galaxy’s dreams, happily.) There’s also Portland’s troubled relationship with the entire month of March to worry about. Done by the lamb, done by the lion…

With those warm thoughts (hey, it’s what I do), welcome, all y’all, to the first of 30+ Opposition Scouting Reports (hereinafter, OSRs) that I’ll be posting here on the PTFCollective during 2016. It works exactly as you’d think: I’ll use these posts as a ruler by which I’ll measure the team Portland will play on the following weekend and ask myself how, between available personnel, form, and the will of the Gods, the Timbers stack up against ’em . And, lo, may the opposition forever fall short, and may the only sound we hear from their supporters be the lamentations of their women (yeah, yeah, I know; not my usual tone, trust me, but when paraphrasing Conan the Barbarian, one sounds like Conan the Barbarian…who wasn’t exactly Andrea Dworkin’s BFF).

As we all know, the last time these two teams lined up the Timbers hit Columbus for two goals early (one of them dirtier than your papa’s Hustler…jesus god, man, Andrea Dworkin is, like, 30 words above this). After that, Columbus ran headlong into the wall Portland built before Adam Kwarasey’s goal, a wall of such brilliant engineering that all the horns that leveled Jericho could not bring it down! That was then, and this is now. I’m confident that Sunday’s game will play out differently, though even that thought contains an enticing wrinkle. Let’s get to the preview.

Overall
With yesterday’s re-signing of Kei Kamara as a designated player (sorta a big fucking deal), Columbus returned, literally, every player who started MLS Cup last year. Crew SC only lost bit players from the 2015 roster (that said, here’s to hoping Chris Klute rises taller than that “bit” designation). As such, the smart money points to them playing a lot like they did last season – e.g. with Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani pacing their game from deep in central midfield, and Federico Higuain running all over the wherever the hell he wants to, the fullbacks pushed up high, the defense passing out of the back, including goalkeeper, Steve Clark (who, if he would be so kind, he would hold the ball just a little bit too long again, for old time’s sake?), Gaston Sauro scaring the shit out of everybody, and Kamara battling for everything in the box served at seven and a half feet, or just below. That doesn’t mean Portland should expect the same stale iteration.

First, and worst, a couple Columbus players – here, I’m thinking Cedric Mabwati (added July 8, 2015) and Harrison “Terrifyingly” Afful (added July 30, 2015) – have by now had a little more face-time with their Ohio teammates. Even within his short time in Columbus, Afful grew into a solid, regular contributor, enough to starting in MLS Cup; Mabwati, meanwhile, did the super-sub thing, coming on as a dribbling nightmare of a whirlwind, tormenting fatigued players, etc. And, like most clubs (except the Montreal Impact), Columbus added a few players during the offseason. Figuring out who those players are, at least to the extent I can, is the next order of business. In order of signing (and, with due respect to Rodrigo Saravia, until they produce real minutes in first-team play, I am going to basically ignore all SuperDraft signings):

Corey Ashe
Ashe should be a known quantity, courtesy of his many good years with the Houston Dynamo. Still, good player, decent speed, smart, so he should be fine in Crew SC’s fullback system (e.g. press ’em high). He’s behind Waylon Francis, though, so, next.

Emil Larsen
Larsen’s a winger, reportedly, a position where Columbus is a bit stacked, as head coach Gregg Berhalter acknowledges (interesting description of “what he does” in that link). Larsen played quite a bit in Denmark’s youth national team system (full national team, not so much; 5 times since 2012), but his track record at club level is solid – e.g. lots of games, and a decent number of goals (42 in 191 games for Lyngby and Odense Boldklub; damn shame Wikipedia doesn’t do assists; good stat on a midfielder).

Conor Casey
Another known quantity, even if for nagging injuries as much as for how he plays. Strong as a bull, but blessed with ballerina’s feet (no, not really), Casey combines strength, genuine fearlessness, and (on a good day) surprising finesse in the attacking third. He might sub in late, but how different is he from Kamara (I mean, apart from being older, slower, and, arguably, a better passer?). At 34, though, he’s definitely coming to the end. His numbers show it. Helluva run, though.

Amro Tarek
Tarek’s just 23, coming over from Spain’s Real Betis (second division? probably; serves ’em right for breaking the bank on Denilson way back when; and do check that resume for points of interest), but with Berhalter quoted as saying he’ll bring “depth and talent” to Columbus’ back line, I suspect the former applies more than the latter. And, hey, check this out: Tarek was born in the U.S. of A. Bet that didn’t hurt.

Ola Kamara
Another signing that grows from Berhalter’s love for/familiarity with Scandinavia, and her players. A 26-year-old forward, one expected to “run behind the line” as Jack McInerney so recently did for Crew SC, (this) Kamara had a pretty good run whilst on loan in Norway last year, scoring 14 goals in 29 (he also has a few call-ups for Norway). Given that his skill-set differs from (the other) Kamara, he seems a likelier sub than Casey.

So, this week is weird. Future preamble/intros won’t be nearly as long, for starters, but, and as we all know, this is MLS Week 1, which leaves me nothing in terms of “real” (as in, games-that-count) video to tell how/what Crew SC is doing new, if anything. This whole process will get both easier and more telling once MLS gets about (or just) four games into 2016. At time of writing, I can tell you this: no one’s out for Columbus at the moment via injury (or it could be that, stuck in preseason mode, MLSSoccer.com hasn’t updated the damn injury report). All this doesn’t mean there’s nothing to study, just nothing ideal. According to the preseason schedule/link-fest posted on MLSSoccer.com, Columbus played only three preseason games this offseason (uh, calling bullshit); they went just 0-1-2 in that time, with one draw coming against “Swope Park Rangers” (yes, the quotes mean I think that name is made up). The only full game I could find to watch was Columbus’ February 20th draw against Real Salt Lake (which included a buttload of dear air). So, I did (well, most of it). Here’s what I found:

First, and in Crew SC’s favor, they settled into that game after a shaky start – and allowing a terrible goal (more later). Columbus responded to RSL’s (again, genuinely terrible) goal before the end of the first half, which is good, but that also means they never got around to finding a winner as reward their better play. This matters more still, given that RSL fielded a clear B-team – we’re talking Devon Sandoval over Yura Movsisyan, no Joao Plata, no Javier Morales; instead you had your, uh…Jonathan(?) Stertzers (not looking this up; we’re doing it live, fuck it!), your Jordan Allens, your Danilo Acostas (that last guy might be good). Columbus, meanwhile, fielded something very, very close to their starting XI – that is, the team the Timbers will likely face on Sunday.

So. That hairball of a goal that Crew SC coughed up? While it wasn’t really like Valeri’s opener in MLS Cup, it did echo it, mostly in the way it resulted what can best (or unfairly) be described as Columbus’ fetish for passing the ball out of the back (as argued in this poorly written post from 2015). With delving into details (ed. Randall: learn GIFs, ass.), the short version went: Parkhurst to Clark, RSL collapses thereon; Clark to Parkhurst, RSL collapses thereon; Parkhurst gets caught up, falls on back like shell-less turtle; two passes, one second later, GOAL, RSL. Crew SC’s dedication to playing it out of the back makes for a wonderful virtue, but that doesn’t obviate the need for their defenders to hit some kind of system override when the situation dictates. Until Columbus takes a rational step away from this, pin them in their own end at every opportunity.

Columbus did answer with a peach of a goal, one initiated by a nicely-threaded pass by Trapp that broke two lines of RSL’s defense; Tchani and Higuan shuttled it through midfield fast enough that Columbus wound up matching numbers between attackers to defenders in the area. The ball went from left to right, finding Hector(?) Jimenez just wide of the 18, and that left nothing more than a soft chip for Kamara to finish. The lesson here boils down to respecting Columbus’ ability to break very, very quickly. And that’s something they can do fairly well and all over.

Moving from that game to Sunday, Columbus should do some of the same things against the Timbers that they tried against RSL – especially on the left. With Afful behind Finlay, Zarek Valentin/Andy Thoma/Liam Ridgewell/Jermaine Taylor – whomever winds up out there – will, 1) have exceedingly full hands, and 2) will need a lot of help from Lucas Melano or whoever it is that plays in front of him. I’d be shocked if Columbus doesn’t focus there, down even to having one of their central midfielders cheat left with an eye to putting more weight in the already full hands of Portland’s left back. Alternately, Columbus could space their attack to free-up Afful for those big booming switches, to have him go one-on-one with Portland’s left back.

To counter Portland’s new(ish) fangled formation, I expect Columbus to push one central midfielder higher, probably Tchani, to try to limit Nagbe’s time on the ball. If/when pressure down its left causes Portland to shuffle over to cover the danger, quickly moving the ball to Portland’s right, or even just having a solitary Afful cross to a crowded backpost, could prove a nightmare. It’s the balloon squeezing thing, only in soccer form. Should be pretty fun to watch, regardless, and, hallelujah, it’ll mean something. Not a lot (see: Portland’s March 2015; and, for related further reading, MLS Cup 2015).

What should Portland do about all that? As implied above, look to pin them in their defensive third when they’re in their own end. After that, push back against Crew SC’s (allegedly) preferred high defensive line: test that puppy often as you can, which Dairon Asprilla and Melano should do nicely. Opportunism aside, the Timbers should stick with Plan A, so long as it holds up (and we do know what this looks like, right? Synchronize watches on my signal…and RIDE!!). And it should because I don’t see Columbus dropping deep against Portland the way the Chicago Fire did (and quite effectively), a tactic that I worry will throw Portland into fits all season long, or at least as often as it’s tried.

OK, once I get this concept tightened up, maybe drop in some regular feature/bullet-points, I’ll be closing out these posts with juicy news items from all around Major League Soccer. Alternatively, I might pass on whatever notes I take from watching all the games I watch that don’t make it into the weekly podcast. Just one point of interest this week: on the way to learning about Crew SC’s new kids, I came across a loose reference on how hard it is to win back-to-back MLS Cups (plus another detail):

“In the previous 20 MLS seasons, only D.C., Houston, New England and L.A. have played in back-to-back Cup finals, and only DC and LA went on to win after placing as runners-up the previous year.”

So, yeah, we’re walking a hard road, Timbers fans, starting with Sunday. Looking forward talking at all y’all over this 2016 season. Don’t be shy about talking back, either in the comments or @JeffBull5.

Go, Timbers! Don’t make me feel too inspired (aka, drunk) or sad (aka, drunk) or bored (again, drunk) after Sunday’s game. I’ve got a podcast to record shortly thereafter and I want to be able to use my words!

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