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RSL vs. Columbus Crew tactical preview: What's happening to the Crew?

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MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, Real Salt Lake will travel to the first soccer specific stadium in this country to take on the Columbus Crew SC. The 2015 MLS Cup runner-up has made a complete 180 in terms of form after only complying a 2-4-5 record this season. The Crew have struggled on both sides of the ball, not to mention in the locker-room. The once powerful Crew are but a mere shadow of their 2015 self.

A battle on the homefront can be more devastating than any other

After earning a Designated Player deal with the Columbus Crew, the sky was the limit for Kei Kamara. Rejoining the league after a brief jaunt in Europe, Kamara returned in peak form scoring 22 goals in the 2015 regular season. His season was so good in fact that the Sierra Leone national almost won the 2015 Golden Boot. Tied with Sebastian Giovinco on goals, the diminutive Italian took the ultimate price, however, due to his larger number of assists.

Still, Kamara was a force to be reckoned with in 2015. Playing 2,761 minutes, he scored approximately every 125.5 minutes, leading the league in that regard – Giovinco scored every 126.1 minutes and Javier Morales, RSL’s leading scorer by comparison, scored every 265.5 minutes played. Moreover, Kamara had among the league’s highest conversion rate of 16 percent (goals/shots), the same as Javier Morales, while Giovinco only managed a 12 percent conversion rate. In short, Kamara was lethal.

In 2016 for comparison, Kamara’s finishing diminished. Dropping to a 13 percent conversion rate and a goal every 158 minutes, the Columbus Crew struggled to earn a point, much less three.

On the fateful night of May 7, everything changed for Columbus and Kamara. The Crew was playing the Montreal Impact at MAPFRE Stadium and took an early three-goal lead. In the midst of what would have then appeared to be a complete and utter route of Montreal, Justin Meram earned a penalty kick for Columbus in the 53rd minute. Kamara sitting on the verge of his first career hat-trick – scoring in the 16th and 45th minute, respectfully – grabbed the ball. Federico Higuain had other plans though as he intercepted the No. 9 and proceeded to the spot.

A conversation ensued between the two Designated Players. Ethan Finlay added his two-cents and the eventual intervention of captain Michael Parkhurst appeared to end the conversation. Higuain then took and converted the penalty, putting the Crew up, 4-1.

For the rest of the match Higuain made but a single pass to Kamara, no more, and the chemistry of the team feel apart. Kamara was visibly upset, and it translated to the pitch as the Impact roared back to tie the match, 4-4.

After the match Kamara made his feelings known telling MLSsoccer.com, "That’s selfishness. That’s not a teammate."

Later that week and just before the initial transfer window closed, Columbus moved Kamara to the New England Revolution. Possibly thinking this could alleviate some of their problems, Columbus has awoken to the harsh reality that without Kei Kamara the club has not fared any better.

The Crew must have thought they had ample depth to replace Kamara but in his absence the Crew have continued their skid through May

Even with younger Ola Kamara — no relation to Kei — now occupying the No. 9 role, Columbus have dropped to a measly 0.5 goals per 90 in their last two matches from the respectable 1.1 goals before Kei’s departure.

Without Kei Kamara, the Crew appear to have no answers in the attack. While (Kei) Kamara has taken his services to New England, the squad give the impression that they are still suffering from a lack of chemistry.

Defensive woes

MLS: Philadelphia Union at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

As a late addition to the Crew last year, Gaston Sauro came into the side and made an immediate impact. Before Sauro took to the pitch, the Crew were conceding 1.6 goals per match. After Sauro become available, however, the 6-foot-3 defender dropped the average to 1.2 goals conceded.

In other words, Columbus had a four-game stretch in the final weeks of the 2015 regular season that was decided by a single goal – two of which were victories. If Sauro had not been with the team it could be assessed that the Crew would have conceded at least one more goal, possibly dropping at least two points moving them into third place instead of second in the 2015 Eastern Conference standings. This means they would have had to play an additional post-season match, increasing their odds of being eliminated and not making it to the Cup Final.

But back to reality, Sauro and Parkhurst had almost an instantaneous connection that powered the Crew to their 2015 MLS Cup appearance. In 2016, the pair have only gotten better as they have reduced Columbus’ 1.5 goals allowed average to 1.36. The duo also accounts for a third of all defensive actions undertaken by the club.

The Crew will be without the physical presence of Sauro when they face the Claret-and-Cobalt, however. The veteran Argentine tore his posterior cruciate ligament resulting in a recovery timeframe of 4-5 months. The Columbus back line, which is already stretched, will be pushed to its limits with his absence.

MLS: Portland Timbers at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

There are several replacements on the Crew squad to possibly fill Sauro vacated spot. The first option is Tyson Wahl. This veteran defender is a like-for-like swap in central defense. Although the most reasonable prospect, this scenario might be delayed as Wahl has been feeling the residual effects of concussion recently.

The other defensive option is Chad Barson, whom usually occupies a fullback position. While Barson might be able to replicate Sauro’s relationship with Parkhurst, he too has been on the Columbus injury report for some time now suffering from a knee sprain.

Therefore, injuries might require Rodrigo Saravia, a rookie midfielder, to step in. More of a No. 6, Saravia might be pulled out of position easier, opening up chances for the RSL attack.

With a bruised and battered backline, Columbus might concede more goals than usual – something that would play in favor of RSL’s attacking trio. Even if the injured players are healed enough to play, it doesn’t mean they will be at 100 percent.

Tiki-taka vs. the counter attack

Under Gregg Berhalter, the Columbus Crew have adopted a style of play similar to the Claret-and-Cobalt of old. Just like Jason Kreis, Berhalter values the attractive tika-taka soccer. As a result, Columbus has the propensity to build out of the back and retain large swaths of possession throughout a given match.

To date, the Crew retain a 54 percent possession average in 2016 and close to 60 percent of the squad’s touches are in their defensive half. Passing the ball so much in their own half is something a counter-attacking side like RSL can and has exploited.

If RSL is able to win the ball in deep in Columbus territory with most of their players ahead of the play looking to be creative, the break could be on. And with Columbus goalkeeper only saving on average 3.73 shots per match, the clinical nature of the RSL attackers might be too much for the youngster to overcome.

Other things to keep in mind:

2. Tony Tchani has been out with a calf sprain. Just like in the central defense, Columbus could find itself down a man in the central midfield. Tchani and Trapp are one of the best central midfield partnerships in the league but with an injury, Trapp may be forced to team up with someone new.

Columbus Injury Report
Courtesy of MLSsoccer.com.

1. The Crew come into this match on a four match winless streak. Chalk it up to problems on or off the pitch, Columbus just has not been able to get the results they would have last year.

Expected Lineup

Columbus (4-5-1)

GK: Clark

DEF: Afful, Parkhurst, Wahl, Ashe

MID: Meram, Trapp, Higuain, Saeid, Cedrick

ATT: O. Kamara

RSL (4-3-3)

GK: Rimando

DEF: Beltran, Glad, Maund, Wingert

MID: Sunny, Mulholland, Morales

ATT: Martinez, Movsisyan, Plata

Keys to the match:

Be aggressive (win the ball)

Counter-attack

Glad-Maund lock-down defense

Watch RSL on Saturday at 5:30 p.m. Mountain Standard Time on KMYU or MLS LIVE.