While Federico Higuaín garners much of the attention as Columbus Crew SC's primary playmaker in the midfield, there’s another attacking midfielder that Orlando City will need to be aware of tonight at Mapfre Stadium.
Lining up on the left wing for Columbus, Justin Meram provides a consistent threat for the Crew, both as a goal-scorer and as a creator. After scoring 11 goals and handing out four assists last season, Meram has notched a goal and an assist through three appearances in 2015, and he turned in a stellar Man-of-the-Match performance in Columbus’ 2-0 win over Toronto on March 14.
The man who will be tasked primarily with handling Meram for the Lions will be right back Rafael Ramos.
Ramos, a Portuguese U-20 international, has been one of the highlights of the early season for OCSC. After a breakout performance in City’s first ever Major League Soccer win at Houston, Ramos has proven to be a steady presence for Adrian Heath’s squad on the back line with sound defending and a relentless motor.
In addition to his contributions at the back, Ramos has been a good complementary player in the Lions’ attack, getting forward on the right flank to assist Kevin Molino and company. Ramos has completed 85 percent of his passes on the season, and the 20-year-old has targeted 109 of his passes into Orlando’s final third, an average of over 20 such passes per match, which helps illustrate his offensive efforts.
With Meram being deployed by Columbus, which plays a similar style to OCSC that is predicated on possession and attacking, Ramos’ main focus this week will be in containing the danger man on Orlando’s right side.
Possessing speed and an ability to shoot from range, Meram excels at cutting in from the left onto his favored right foot. Because of his propensity to slash inside and create centrally, Orlando’s number six in the midfield, Amobi Okugo, will be relied upon to assist with Meram, as he always is against opposing midfield threats.
Meram is able to beat defenders in one-on-one situations (he averages 2.3 successful dribbles per game, according to Who Scored), so Okugo’s presence in the central midfield inside of Ramos will be important.
Depending on whether or not Heath wants to replicate the 4-3-3-esque formation he employed at Portland or revert back to his standard 4-2-3-1, the presence of Darwin Cerén and/or Cristian Higuita could also have an effect in the central midfield. Ramos figures to be integral regardless.
In addition to the threat from Meram, Ramos will see fullbacks that get up the field in a similar fashion to himself and counterpart Brek Shea. When Meram pinches inside, Columbus’ fullbacks play wide and high up the pitch. With Columbus likely to crowd things in the midfield, the flanks could be an area of interest on this evening.
Brek Shea Update
Speaking of Shea, Heath had a lot to say about his left back on this week's coach's call-in show.
Shea's move from left wing to fullback has been widely covered, and the 25-year-old American has continued to show encouraging signs of progress as he further settles in to his new role with both club and country.
"We all know that Brek is growing into this position," Heath said during the show. "It's something that he hasn't played an awful lot of. But he is making progress and he's understanding -- both in possession and out of possession. I think for how long he's been playing the position that he's been absolutely outstanding."
Shea's attacking ability was already a known quantity before he made the switch to defense, so his contributions in that area come as no surprise. Heath did say that his understanding with Kaká on the left side seems to improve week by week, and the continued development between those two could see Shea's offensive impact grow even more as the season progresses.
Shea unexpectedly started the U.S. Men's National Team's friendly with Mexico on the bench on Wednesday night, but he featured throughout the decisive second half of the 2-0 win. Heath sounded confident that Shea would play against the Crew even before his exclusion from Jürgen Klinsmann's starting XI, and after arriving in Columbus a day earlier than the rest of the squad for a day of recuperation, it seems likely that we'll see Shea tonight to take on Ethan Finlay -- who has dished out a pair of assists this year -- on the right wing.
Shea's athleticism has aided in his transition to the back, and it's part of what makes him a fun player to watch opposite Ramos.
"He's a beast of an athlete," Heath added in regards to Shea. "I think he's the number one athlete in the U.S. Soccer Federation on all the data; 30-meter sprints, 40-meter sprints, endurance, vertical jumps -- you name it. I think he's virtually number one in all categories."
Thankfully that athleticism was not hampered by an injury while playing on the abysmal temporary turf inside the Alamodome against El Tri.