Friday, July 11, 2008

A View From the Other Side: RSL vs Columbus Crew

Real Salt Lake -vs- Columbus Crew
from the perspective of Doug (aka Minnman on Big Soccer)

There’s been a recurring statement cropping up on Bigsoccer Columbus Crew threads this season. While there are variations, in general, it goes something like this: “The Crew are fun to watch this year.” Hmmmm, maybe. Guess it depends on your definition of “fun.” The Brazilians or the Dutch, sure, they’re fun to watch. But let’s face it, the only thing that the phrase “sexy football” and Sigi Schmid” have in common is the letter “s” (Sigi’s are, appropriately, bigger). No, it’s not so much – I’d argue – that the Crew have been all that much fun to watch, it’s that they’ve been worth the price of admission; watching the team this year has been a worthwhile endeavor. These guys deserve our support here in central Ohio.

And the best way to maximize the fun aspect of that endeavor is to, once and for all, give in to the undeniable fact that this is Schmid’s team and he’s going to do it his way. Sigi’s a stay-the-course kind of coach. Which makes penning a preview column on Saturday’s Crew-RSL match a fairly simple affair. Sigi decided many months ago that, with this group of players (especially with Guillermo Barros Schelotto on the team), it made most sense to play a certain way and not deviate from that path, even when certain players got hurt, even when the team stopped scoring, even when the club dropped three in a row. So don’t tune in to this weekend’s match and expect any meaningful tactical changes from the Crew. But do expect the game to look a lot different from the USOC match these two teams played in Columbus several weeks ago, when both clubs rested quite a few starters.

Since Schelotto arrived in Columbus last spring, Schmid’s employed the same basic strategic set-up, and it’s been a source of substantial consternation for Crew fans: We play four in the back, and encourage our wide backs to make aggressive, overlapping runs; we use two central midfielders, one overtly defensive, the other with more responsibility for going forward and linking up with Schelotto; we play with two wide midfielders (more on that below); Alejandro Moreno’s our lone striker; and Schelotto plays a wide-ranging withdrawn forward/attacking midfielder role. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But the system doesn’t change much, regardless. Case in point: last weekend, in the 77th minute with the Crew down a goal at home versus conference rival Chicago, stand-in head coach Robert Warzycha (Sigi was in California attending his daughter’s wedding) subbed out rookie defender Andy Iro for rookie striker Steve Lenhart. This, obviously, isn’t exactly a groundbreaking tactical maneuver; clubs the world over do the same thing every week. But over on Bigsoccer, we quite logically questioned if Sigi would have done it. And the general consensus was that he probably wouldn’t have. More likely he’d have gone for the half-measure of yanking a midfielder and inserting some fresh legs – either an attacking midfielder or striker, depending upon the make-up of the bench.

Similarly, while we’ve seen a fair number of fresh faces crack the starting XI over the past several weeks, a strong case can be made that this only happened because a rash of injuries forced Sigi’s hand. Fans wanted to see what Emmanual Ekpo could do on the right side of midfield, but he really only got a chance to play when Eddie Gaven suffered an ankle sprain, even though Gaven’s offensive output this season has been close to nonexistent; we repeatedly smacked our heads against the wall at Ezra Hendrickson’s stumbling performances at central and left(!) back, but Sigi seemed content with the whole thing until an injury to EZ forced him to try out Iro in the middle and slide O’Rourke wide left. Crew fans are impressed with Sigi’s ability to revamp our roster in a little over two years; he’s cobbled together an impressive mix of veterans and youth, developed great team chemistry, and done this while staying well under the salary cap. But we do question some of his tactical decisions.

So what to expect on Saturday night in Salt Lake? More of the same, but with some new faces that substantially affect the way Sigi’s static tactical approach actually operates on the pitch:

Our back five is fairly easy to predict: Hesmer will start in goal, Frankie Hejduk wide right with Chad Marshall next to him anchoring the center. We’ll most likely see Andy Iro as the other center back and Danny O’Rourke appearing as our latest stop-gap left back. Ezra Hendrickson did play in a mid-week exhibition match, but I believe I can speak for the entire Crew Soccer Nation in saying that no one wants to see EZ back in action any time soon.

In the midfield, Brian Carroll will be the defensive mid with Robbie Rogers on the left and Emmanuel Ekpo on the right…probably. Ekpo left Wednesday’s exhibition with some sort of injury about 20 minutes in, but there haven’t been any reports stating that the knock was serious. At this point, I assume, and hope, he’ll play. In recent weeks, Brad Evans has held down the fourth midfield slot, but I’m predicting Sigi will play Stefani Miglioranzi (who’s just come off the injured reserve list) on Saturday.

Moreno and Schelotto will round out the starting XI.

What to watch for and, if you’re RSL, what to try and exploit?

· Score early: The Crew have given up a goal in the first 10 minutes in four of our 15 MLS games this season;
· Play for 90 minutes: One of the most endearing qualities of the Crew this season has been its never quit attitude. The team has come back from deficits to win and draw games several times this season.
· Keep the ball on the ground: With a 6’4” and 6’5” center back tandem, we’re very strong in the air. But on the ground, especially against Iro, we’re shaky.
· When in doubt, give up a corner kick: The Crew have scored twice out of 100 corner kicks this season.
· Play physically, and see what the ref will let you get away with: A bit harder to do with scoring threat Ekpo on the right, but teams have had luck smothering the Crew attack when refs have allowed them to repeatedly foul Robbie Rogers.

Key players/things to watch for the Crew are:

· Andy Iro: Arguably responsible for both Fire goals last week (though Marshall had an off game, as well), the huge rookie back is having trouble adjusting to the pace of the professional game. He’s great in the air, but can look lost with the ball at his feet. Not sure if it’s his lack of technical skill or that he’s just not thinking fast enough out there. He can learn, get better technically, but I am concerned with his lack of pace. An attacker with speed should get a few chances on goal vs. Iro.
· Whoever plays that second central midfield position: Hard as it is to believe, the Crew haven’t been able to replace $18K/year rookie Adam Moffat, who was lost for the season with a knee injury a few weeks ago. Sigi quite accurately described Moffat as a true “box to box” player, and no one else who Sigi’s tried out in that position has been able to play that role effectively. Brad Evans, a converted forward, has gotten up into the attack on occasion, but disappears for extended stretches and doesn’t have great defensive skills, a must-have commodity with Rogers and Ekpo on the wings, neither of whom play much defense. Miglioranzi was a logical choice to try out there, but he’s been out 6 weeks with a muscle tear. He came in as a sub last week, however, so one can hope he’ll be ready to go 90 this week. Personally speaking, I’d love to see Eddie Gaven (who’s listed as questionable for this week) slotted into that role, but my name’s not Sigi Schmid.
· Ekpo: He’s given us a much-needed offensive boost on the right side of midfield, but he still seems out of sync with the rest of the team for extended portions of each game. Without Ekpo in the line-up, our attack is extremely lop-sided (through Rogers on the left) and easy for opposing defensives to read (if not always stop). With Ekpo having scored the last two games, defenses can’t focus quite so exclusively on Rogers. The question, then, is whether Ekpo’s offensive output makes up for his out-of-synced-ness, personified by errant passes, a bizarre belief that he can dribble his way through opposition defenders, no matter how many of them are out there, and an almost criminal inability to play defense.
· Schelotto: When his name’s on the scoring sheet, we win, when it’s not, we have a pretty marginal record. Enough said.
· The wings: His lack of offense notwithstanding, Gaven worked hard to cover for Hejduk whenever Frankie went on one of his 60 yard runs. Ekpo and Hejduk don’t have anywhere near that level of chemistry. The left side has a similar situation in that a series of left backs has meant that whoever’s back there and Robbie Rogers don’t always communicate very well. And that can sometimes leave the Crew exposed in the back.

A prediction? Um, no thanks. Suffice it to say that I don’t expect this to be an easy game for the Crew. I know of RSL’s home record and the difficulty of playing on that turf. The Crew aren’t an especially strong turf team. I’d accept a draw. Would be thrilled with three points. Whatever happens, though, the Crew will be “fun” to watch.