Columbus Crew SC opens the Eastern Conference Finals at home, one series away from competing for the MLS Cup. The Black & Gold will also be the underdog.
The New York Red Bulls, favorites and winners of the 2015 Supporters' Shield by virtue of an 18-10-6 record and a league-best +19 goal differential during the regular season, are pursuing their first-ever conference title to compete once more for an MLS Cup.
Despite being a perennial playoff team and a charter franchise dating back to MLS' 1996 founding, New York has never hoisted the Cup or won the Eastern Conference. The Red Bulls were runners-up to the Black & Gold in the 2008 MLS Cup Final, but they came through the Western Conference bracket due to rules in place at the time.
So while these teams have history vying for glory against one another, New York has never truly claimed the East and represented it in a league championship game. That could all change if Crew SC doesn't accomplish several vital things between now and the evening of Nov. 29.
First on the list? Keep the Red Bulls' leading goal scorer—forward Bradley Wright-Phillips—off his game. In three head-to-head matches so far this year, New York has outscored Crew SC 5-4 and has split games played in Columbus. The British striker has notched three of the five goals and assisted a fourth.
The what is simple, but the how is more difficult. Crew SC ultimately has to limit counterattack throughballs and concede a minimum of offensive set pieces to slow New York down.
Wright-Phillips only took three shots during the first leg of their conference semifinal series against D.C. United, with but one being on target. In the instances where Wright-Phillips struggles to find the back of the net, though, it's important to note that the midfield for New York is highly talented and steps up to fill the offensive void up front. Crew SC's best chance of containing the Red Bulls correlates to its ability to force those midfielders to step up.
Just as D.C. United largely succeeded in Leg 1 by defensively limiting the New York damage — the only tally coming from captain Dax McCarty's diving header off a free kick—so too does Crew SC need to stay disciplined in the box and rely on strong play from its center backs to keep the Red Bulls at bay.
Bill Hamid tallied eight saves in the first leg for D.C. Similarly, Steve Clark is going to be tested often, likely with strikes from beyond 20 yards from left wing Mike Grella and central mid Felipe. Grella had a beautiful shot ricochet off the woodwork of the right upper 90 in the opening minutes of Leg 2 against United on Nov. 8, showing that he can be a threat early if defenses don't account for him.
Crew SC doesn't want to find itself in a position where it needs Clark to clean up crosses and punch out set pieces to stay in the game. That would be a clear sign that Michael Parkhurst and Tyson Wahl have been giving up too much in front of Clark.
Crew SC will miss the physicality, size, and range of Gaston Sauro, all of which helped render Montreal striker Didier Drogba ineffective last round as the Argentine sits out Leg 1 against New York due to yellow card accumulation.
But what ultimately makes this such an interesting series is that both teams are similar tactically by differ in implementation. The primary difference between these two clubs right now is that New York seemed content to get into a defensive slugfest against D.C. during both legs, while Columbus endeavored to possess and attack frequently right from the outset.
New York employs the same 4-2-3-1 scheme that Columbus has honed under head coach Gregg Berhalter, but Crew SC uses its outside backs far more aggressively up and wide to key in crossing balls. The 3-1 upending of the Montreal Impact two weeks ago is a testament to that methodology, as Golden Boot runner-up Kei Kamara sent a Waylon Francis helper from the left flank home early in the game to spark a complete Columbus performance.
Red Bulls wingers are admittedly dangerous. Lloyd Sam and Mike Grella sometimes play with widened looks for crosses in, but they do this far less often than Crew SC's outside backs likely will along the edges Sunday. New York does pass efficiently and accurately in the midfield and they have no problem playing with speed during possessions. Columbus must be ready for that brutally efficient counterattack by getting into good shape quickly after turnovers.
The battle between these two teams will likely be won and lost in the middle third. Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani can be the supporting platform that frees Federico Higuain to roam forward, but Columbus then stands to endure a numerical disadvantage. The high-risk, high-reward model of deploying Francis and right side counterpart Harrison Afful forward means that Columbus can have New York reeling from a barrage of shots; but one turnover by the trio in the middle could also see the visitors get a wide open look at a 4v4 or 4v3 matchup in transition that could be the Black & Gold's undoing if New York stays onside and passes intelligently to score.
This exact type of exploitation was what sealed the Red Bulls their series victory two weeks ago.
United captain and defender Bobby Boswell committed an ugly turnover along his left touchline, and substitute Gonzalo Veron was easily able to convert the dispossession into an assist to Wright-Phillips in stoppage time for the 1-0 match win and 2-0 win on aggregate.
In the last two meetings between New York and Columbus, the team to score first has gone on to lose the match. If Crew SC does indeed strike first, it cannot be content to take its foot off the gas because scoring away goals in Harrison, N.J., will prove far more difficult during the second leg if it has to play catch-up. If New York strikes first, the Black & Gold cannot panic; they must subsequently tighten up to limit turnovers and then judiciously move forward to grab back the initiative in the series.
Columbus has all the tools to succeed Sunday with a rowdy home crowd cheering on a hungry group of players growing in big-game experience, but New York conversely has a strong corp of midfielders that could prove nightmarish in the attacking third for Crew SC if given the chance.
High risk, high reward. That's the name of the game and perhaps the series.