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Signal Intel: Despite Manneh addition, expect familiar approach from Crew

Crew (SC) playing well going into tomorrow’s crucial early-season clash

MLS: Orlando City SC at Columbus Crew SC
With the exception of an injury in central defense, the Fire will face basically the same XI they battled in the season opener.
Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

The messenger - tattered, road-filthy, redolent of some recent fire - burst into Hot Time HQ, interrupting another ill-tempered afternoon filled with ignored FOIA requests and denied press-pass applications. “Nothing,” he gasped, slumping to the floor, as everyone present scrambled to assist, moving aside chalkboards and chairs to fashion a makeshift bed on the dusty concrete.

“They’re changing nothing,” he whispered as he lost consciousness. Beneath his jacket and hoodie was a dirty, faded Naked Raygun t-shirt. In my desperation, I tore it straight down the sternum, and beheld the messenger’s fate.

Hoof marks. Hoof marks covering his torso, his arms, his back. Cloven hoof marks, from something incredibly heavy. He’d been trampled, and rolled a bit, and trampled some more. Faintly, the occasional, trailing heel mark, about 5 inches back.

It’s cows. Fuckin’ COWS. Our messenger was trampled by cows. All to bring us the secrets revealed herein, transported on the two sides of a cross-stitched pillow, untrammeled by bovine aggression. Today, I wave this muddy, shredded Naked Raygun shirt and call for the Fire to avenge good old ... what’s his name. Tattered filthy messenger guy! Avenge him!

(Alternately, Patrick Murphy of Massive Report and I exchanged questions - dig!)

Hot Time: Columbus underlined the increasing wildness of the MLS trade environment (pointed up initially by the Fire's landmark trade for Dax) by shuffling off Tony Tchani and a few large sacks of GarberBux for Kekutah Manneh. How does Manneh change the Crew for the better? How you expect to see him deployed? Is he likely to feature from the start on Saturday?

Massive Report: The answer to all of these questions is the same. We simply don't know. Crew SC's front three of Justin Meram, Ola Kamara and Ethan Finlay are all playing well. Meram and Kamara each have multiple goals and Meram is tied for the team lead with two assists. Finlay has been asked to do a lot of different things this year, but he's filling a needed role so far.

Manneh is an exciting player for sure and I know Gregg Berhalter looks forward to getting him on the field, but we're still not sure where exactly he will fit in. In a scrimmage against Michigan State last Sunday, Manneh played on the right wing for 45 minutes and looked good, but that was not his primary position in Vancouver.

Some have suggested he can come off the bench, but do you trade that much for a super sub? Others say he will certainly replace Finlay, but Ethan's been so willing to adjust as a player this year and it's helped the team as a whole that I imagine it would be difficult to move him to the bench full time. I don't see Manneh as a full-time forward either.

Behalter has been coy about what role he prefers Manneh in (instead saying he could play any of the front four) and how soon we will see him on the field. I would imagine he is in the 18-man game day roster for Saturday and will come off the bench, but that's just an educated guess.

HT: Going into the season, you were confident that we were about to see a focused and rejuvenated Federico Higuaín back at his best in the yellow and black. Have Higuaín's performances repaid your confidence?

MR: First, I think it's important to point out that Higuain is 32 years old and is not going to be the same player he was when he arrived in Columbus at 28, at least not all the time. With that said, I think Pipa is showing he's still a top-level player in this league.

It was a poor performance by anyone's standards in the opener against Chicago, but he's responded since then. Many fans locally didn't like what he did against the Houston Dynamo the next week, but he was an Ola Kamara step too early (or you could argue he played the ball a step too late) and an out-rushing Tyler Deric stop from ending the game with a goal and an assist.

Higuain is pulling the strings in midfield once again. He got his goal scoring started with a penalty kick against D.C. United and has an assist in each of the last two games. He's settled back into his spot at the top of the midfield and is beginning to look comfortable with those around him.

I think the biggest thing with him is picking and choosing when and where he moves. At times, he will help Kamara pressure high, while other points he waits and conserves some energy. He's not dropping as deep to get the ball as he did a few years ago, instead trusting Wil Trapp and Artur (among others) to find him.

It's clear Higuain's healthy this year and it's making an impact for the Black & Gold. Is he an MVP candidate? Probably not. But is he done and dusted? Certainly not.

HT: With Meram, Manneh and Finlay, the Crew have three top-level MLS wing forwards. Is this necessary depth? Orrrrrr, how much do you want for Finlay?

MR: It does seem like a lot, right? I know many of the national MLS guys believe there is another trade in the works and all of them seem to believe Finlay would be that guy. I think Berhalter likes and trusts what Finlay provides too much to send him packing. I also believe the coach likes the versatility he now has with his attacking front.

Each season, Gregg brought in a winger to push Meram and Finlay. Whether it's Kristin Steindorsson or Cedrick Mabwati, these players haven't worked out the way the staff hoped. Manneh seems much more likely to fit in and be a key part of the attack.

As Berhalter continues to point out, he wanted to create depth this offseason because it's a long season. He seems to have built that in other spots and now he has it in his attack as well.

As for Finlay's price, we'll sit back and see what comes out way...

Projected lineup

(4-4-1-1): Zack Steffen; Jukka Raitala, Nicolai Naess, Alex Crognale, Harrison Afful; Justin Meram, Artur, Wil Trapp, Ethan Finlay; Federico Higuain; Ola Kamara