If Crew SC fans needed any hope after Columbus failed to win in its first two matches, Saturday's 2-0 victory in RFK stadium gave them just that. Federico Higuain and Ola Kamara scored on two penalties for Columbus to defeat the maligned D.C. United at the unfriendly confines of RFK Stadium.
After two disappointing results from Columbus, and two poor performances from star man Federico Higuain, Manager Gregg Berhalter decided to narrow up his formation; he set Justin Meram next to Higuain and moved the outside midfielders to deeper lying positions. It was an interesting choice that worked like a charm. Higuain and Meram worked beautifully behind the striker Kamara and Columbus for the first time since the 2015 MLS season showed the attacking prowess they are capable of.
(Formation versus Houston Dynamo, 3-1 loss)
(Formation versus D.C. United, 2-0 Win)
Columbus ran a conventional 4-2-3-1 (above) in the first two matches. The 4-2-3-1 focuses on the outside midfielders making wide runs and receiving long balls from Higuain and deeper lying mid Wil Trapp' Those outside midfielders then cross it back in for oncoming strikers. In Saturdays match Berhalter ran out an unconventional 3-4-2-1 (below) which forces offensive play into the middle of the pitch and limits the wide runs from midfielders. This forced the ball into the middle where Higuain and Meram worked their magic with short incisive passes. The 3-4-2-1 calls for more through balls and requires a quicker passing game, which Meram and Higuain are capable of doing at a high level.
The liability this formation causes on the defensive end by removing a back may hurt Columbus against teams with an ability to score effectively but the risky move from Berhalter payed off with an exquisite performance from homegrown CB Alex Crognale, who replaced the struggling Jonathan Mensah. Alex Crognale, 22, was the man of the match on Saturday with a masterful performance on defense. Crognale, who stands at 6'5", had 11 clearances, 3 tackles, and 4 50/50 wins in the air. He did exactly what a three-back formation asks for, a dominant center-back. If Crognale continues to play like Saturday than the defense may be just fine with one less back.
D.C. United was picked apart all night by the Columbus midfield and would've conceded two or three more goals had it not been for the efforts of keeper Bill Hamid, a consistent U.S. international. D.C. continues to struggle losing their second straight after drawing in the first weekend. This D.C. team has yet to score through three weeks and are the only MLS squad who have yet to find the net. D.C. also struggled on the defensive end, with center-back Steve Birnbaum ending with a negative match rating. This is the worst D.C. United team in their storied history and the chances of a playoff appearance don't look good after three weeks.
In terms of future outlook for Columbus, the formation change and performance on the pitch is an encouraging sign for the Black and Gold as they performed well in an early-season must-win game. Keeper Zack Steffen responded from a dreadful performance in Houston by coming up with two crucial saves, one on a breakaway one-on-one and also a diving save off a D.C. header.
Columbus did what it needed to do on Saturday, it beat a bad team and executed a new formation. Whether it can continue against quality opponents will be the question for Gregg Berhalter's squad.
Columbus Crew SC vs Portland Timbers 7:30pm E.T. Saturday, March 25th.
Columbus has one match remaining in the opening month of the 2017 season. Crew SC will battle Portland in Columbus next Saturday, one of only three games on the MLS slate with most of the league on an international break due to the CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers. They'll have a chance to show whether Saturdays result was a fluke or not against a quality Portland team.
This is the final season of D.C. United soccer at RFK Stadium which is without a doubt the worst facility in the MLS. The pitch was patchy and brown and the stadium is falling apart in the stands, I think D.C. United are grateful for the fact they will be playing in a new stadium, Audi Field, at the start of 2018. Columbus will be grateful that this will be the last match in RFK, and the MLS will be grateful for leaving behind the final remnants of the old turbulent MLS.
Follow Me: @MooreLukas