Gregg Berhalter has shown he's adept at building a roster. He maximizes player talent by putting people in spots to succeed. When it comes to building a game plan against the opposition, he has a system and he hasn't deviated. Columbus Crew SC play possession soccer, get the ball wide, and score through Ethan Finlay and Kei Kamara. When asked about a Plan B, Berhalter refers back to the plan and dismisses the idea.
That devotion to his system drove Crew SC to the second seed in the playoffs, but often left the defense exposed. The team could score goals, but it gave them up. The philosophy betrayed him last year against the New England Revolution and the Montreal Impact nearly exploited it in the first leg of the Eastern Semifinals this season. Berhalter was just waiting for the right time to deploy a tactical wrinkle.
Columbus played two different styles over both legs of the Eastern Conference Finals against the New York Red Bulls and neither of them were exactly Berhalter's system.
Leg one was similar to how Columbus normally plays. Kamara spearheads while Finlay and Justin Meram push up from the wings. However, the fullbacks didn't push quite as high and the coaching staff implemented a high press to disrupt the Red Bulls' excellent midfield. New York won the possession battle, but only completed 74% of their passes. The domination may best be illustrated by the work that Tony Tchani and Wil Trapp had to do. Below is a chart of their tackles, blocks, interceptions, and clearances.
They didn't have as much to do as you'd expect a team losing the possession battle and protecting a lead. Most of the action was in the defensive half, but they just weren't that busy. New York lost the ball or were pushed wide before the midfield pairing had to intervene.
Now looking at the second leg gives a completely different story. Possession ticked up to 59% in favor of the Red Bulls and they completed 78% of their passes. Both were improved numbers over what they accomplished in the first leg. Berhalter pulled the team deeper, into a defensive shell and invited the Red Bulls to come at them. Tchani and Trapp were called on to do the defensive dirty work. Their defensive chalkboards show critical interventions deep in the defensive zone. The Red Bulls' midfield had time on the ball, but now there was a wall in front of them.
It was a standard defensive plan. Make the other team beat you, but it was also pragmatic. Berhalter knew that he had a team that could counterattack well even if they didn't deploy it often. Federico Higuain is adept at making quick decisions and he has excellent outlets in Kamara, Finlay, and Meram. Crew SC had several good chances to grab the away goal, but they failed to capitalize. The Red Bulls only had significant chances late in the game.
Red Bull head coach Jesse Marsch stuck with a great system that had earned New York the Supporters Shield, but struggled to adapt to the problems that Berhalter's pragmatism presented.
Sunday presents another puzzle. The Portland Timbers have been excellent since Darlington Nagbe moved to central midfield and Fernando Adi is a towering and physical presence who is a very fine finisher. Portland can manage a game like New York and use a punishing target forward like Montreal. Berhalter and his staff will have to find the tweaks and changes that can slow down a team that the best in the Western Conference couldn't.
They've done it before. Drogba couldn't be stopped until the Crew SC back line did and New York was rarely out of their comfort zone this season until they faced the Columbus midfield. Sunday will be a challenge that Berhalter will likely relish.