The last of two games on the west coast for Columbus Crew SC in 2017 takes place Saturday when they face the Vancouver Whitecaps. It marks the eighth all-time meeting between the two clubs, with the ‘Caps owning a 4-2-1 advantage up to this point. Both sides have claimed a win, loss and a draw in the three games played in British Columbia.
This intra-conference clash is certainly a matchup of two teams in sparkling form of late. Each boasts an unbeaten record over their last five matches and have a combined eight wins in that span. The Whitecaps currently find themselves at the top of the Western Conference standings as a result. For Crew SC, it means they’re in good shape to make the playoffs despite teams below them in the East having games in hand.
Certainly attacking stalwarts such as Fredy Montero and Ola Kamara (among others) need to show up for their respective teams. Both Vancouver’s David Ousted and Columbus’ Zack Steffen need to put in standout performances in net. But what transpires in the center of the park will also play a prominent role in determining who prevails in this game.
Vancouver Whitecaps-Columbus Crew SC: Breaking Down the Central Midfield Battle
Similar Roles, Contrasting Stature
Losing Matías Laba to a season-ending ACL injury certainly came as a blow for Vancouver. During his time in MLS, he’s consistently been among the league’s most industrious ball-winners. That’s evident in the fact that his 4.6 tackles per 90 is still the best mark in the league among players who’ve logged at least 1,500 minutes.
The team is hoping that the addition of Aly Ghazal via the summer transfer market can make up for Laba’s absence. The Egyptian defensive midfielder registered three tackles and 2.6 interceptions per 90 in 14 appearances with Portuguese club Nacional last season. Though he’s seen action just once since joining the ‘Caps, he put forth a solid effort in that game.
Him and former Crew SC box-to-box midfielder Tony Tchani proved a reliable partnership protecting the defensive line in Vancouver’s 3-2 win over Real Salt Lake last Saturday. Ghazal himself led the team with five interceptions, comprising 29.4 percent of the team’s total. Though he completed just 69 percent of his passes, Vancouver conceded a lot of possession in protecting a lead. That lends itself to inaccurate distribution.
Assuming they start Saturday, Ghazal and Tchani pose a unique challenge in that both are lengthy, physical presences. At an average height of 6’3″, it comes in glaring contrast to the two players expected to start for the Black and Gold.
During the majority of Crew SC’s current unbeaten run, Wil Trapp and Mohammed Abu comprised the defensive midfield partnership. In comparison to the aforementioned duo for Vancouver, these two sport an average height of under 5’8″. But part of what makes soccer great is that most roles on the pitch don’t require imposing size or herculean strength. Both distinct versions of holding midfielder these two players occupy are among them.
While at FC Barcelona, famed head coach Pep Guardiola regularly deployed diminutive individuals at these positions. Players such as Xavi and Andres Iniesta became worldwide sensations as center mids with their work rate, spacing and incisive passing rather than sheer physicality. Perhaps the most famous example in recent years is Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante, who checks in at 5’6″.
Elements of that skill set are noticeable in both Trapp’s and Abu’s game. The former’s ability as Crew SC’s distributive hub from central areas is on display week in and week out. This is evidenced by his 89.5 percent pass accuracy which is third in MLS among players with at least 2,000 minutes of game action. And don’t count out the latter either. His return to form after a shaky start with the club is a huge part of Columbus’ recent success.
Since reassuming the number eight role as Artur recovered from injury, Abu has been a hugely reliable cog in central midfield. The 25-year-old started all four of the club’s previous games. In that time, he managed to complete 93.75 percent of his passes and showed exceptional quality getting forward. He registered an assist in a 2-0 win against the LA Galaxy. And his five key passes during that stretch tied Justin Meram for second on the team.
Cutting Off the Supply Lines in the Final Third Will Be Crucial
Neutralizing opposing central attackers is a key task for any defensive midfielder. It will remain so on Saturday for both these sides as they hope to maintain positive momentum. Each team boasts a skillful, dynamic South American playmaker in Crew SC’s Federico Higuaín and the Whitecaps’ Yordy Reyna. Higuaín is enjoying a career renaissance after an injury-plagued 2016. And Reyna is currently bursting onto the scene before our very eyes.
The 23-year-old Peruvian has been a significant factor in Vancouver’s ascendance to the top of the West. He has three goals and an assist during this current five-game unbeaten run. It’s a scary thought of “what could’ve been” for the ‘Caps as Reyna didn’t make his first appearance until July due to a preseason foot injury. But now that he’s here, he’s regularly making his presence felt.
Both Reyna and Higuain are dangerous near goal in a provider capacity while also proving to be capable goal-scorers. Choking away service, whether it be from them or to them, will prove crucial in determining who wins on Saturday. The above defensive midfield duos for their respective sides will be at the forefront of that effort. All in all, it functions as one sum of many parts necessary for victory.