Rivalry week in Major League Soccer was last week, but for D.C. United and the Columbus Crew it might as well be extended to this weekend. The two MLS originals meet Saturday at R.F.K. Stadium and the competition between the two teams is full of history and tradition.
For three straight seasons from 1997-1999 United and Crew battled for the right to play in MLS Cup. United won all three playoff series. In 1998 the format was a best-of-three series that went to a dramatic third game. United advanced in an electric atmosphere at R.F.K Stadium, but the game was played on a Wednesday and a fatigued United side lost to Chicago four days later in MLS Cup “98.
The two teams are more concerned with the present and enter week four of MLS with identical 1-1-1 marks. United just barely avoided its second loss last week in its rivalry game with the New York Red Bulls. Goalkeeper Bill Hamid made seven saves to earn MLS Player of the Week honors and preserve a 0-0 tie,
Two of Hamid’s saves, a clearance off the line in stoppage time and a denial of a Tim Cahill volley inside the six-yard box were nominated for MLS Save of the Week. Hamid was also named to the EA Sports FIFA 13 Ultimate Team of the Week which honors a select group of players around the world for their high level of play.
It is fortunate United will have Hamid in the starting eleven against the Crew. Hamid is playing well enough to be back in the mix for the US men’s national team, but was not included on the roster for the qualifier against Costa Rica. First choice USMNT keeper Tim Howard is sidelined with a back injury, but Brad Guzan remains the fill-in with Nick Rimando behind him.
United will have to make a change in front of Hamid, with defender Dejan Jakovic called up for Canada’s friendlies in Doha, Qatar against Japan and Belarus. Daniel Woolard is a likely option to move inside and play next to Brandon McDonald with James Riley at right back and Chris Korb at left back.
Defense has not been the issue for United. The Black and Red has only allowed 2 goals in 3 games, but on offense United has only scored once with only 8 shots on goal this season. With Dwayne De Rosario set to play his second game of the season, after missing the first two matches because of suspension, it is hoped that United finds some rhythm on offense.
“Our offense is struggling right now,” said United midfielder Nick DeLeon. “But as long as we can be defensively sound and not give up any goals, it keeps us in the game for that one counterattack where we could score. It’s something that happened to us last year. It was a slow start offensively, but as we get more comfortable with each other, we’ll start generating some goals.”
The Crew will have to find a way without striker Jairo Arrieta who is with the Costa Rican national team. Arrieta arrived in the middle of last season and was an immediate hit with 9 goals in 18 games to tie Eddie Gaven for the team lead. On the plus side Gaven, who has not played since the opening 3-0 win over Chivas USA, is expected back from an ankle injury.
Gaven works out of the left side out of a potentially explosive Crew midfield. Dominc Oduro is the Crew’s option on the right side. Gaven is only 26 years old, but has already logged 10 seasons in MLS with 51 goals. Oduro is new to the Crew and scored in the season opener after a run with the Chicago Fire that included 18 goals in 66 games.
Pulling the strings in center of the midfield is Federico Higuain who like Arrieta was an instant success last season. With 7 assists in 13 games Higuain earned the Newcomer of the Year award and reminded Crew fans of fellow Argentine midfielder Guillermo Barros Schelotto who led the Crew to a title in 2008.
Higuain is a playmaker who can score and is especially a threat on set pieces from as deep as 35-yards out. Last season Higuain scored five goals to go with his 7 assists and opened his account this year with a brilliant goal from 25-yards out in the 3-0 win over Chivas USA.
The goal now belongs to Andy Gruenebaum who developed as an understudy to William Hesmer. Gruenebaum led MLS in saves with 124 lasts season and only conceded 41 goals in 33 games. In front of him the Crew has brought in Brazilian Glauber, who played in Europe with Rapid Bucharest, to partner with Chard Marshall in central defense.