It's two teams that are not that dissimilar right now, probably much to the dismay of Black & Gold fans.
New York City has gotten off a 1-3-1 start, and haven't won since the season opener at the Chicago Fire. It also hasn't played on the road since that game.
It certainly appears that NYC is improved this year, with a few personnel additions and Patrick Vieira at the helm. The question is how much better they are, and how good will they be on the road. The Blues have used the dimensions of their home field to their advantage thus far, but some of the tactics they've employed may not work as well on the road.
That provides an opportunity for Crew SC to return home for just the second time this season, settle in, and pull out a positive result and some momentum.
Here are some things to look for as NYCFC stops by for a visit.
Where does possession get you?
Two teams that Columbus has faced so far this year have garnered more than 50 percent possession through five weeks — Portland Timbers and FC Dallas — and both of those teams have shown comfort playing on the counter as well. This will be the first time in 2016 that the Black & Gold will come up against a team that wants to control the game as much as they do.
NYCFC currently leads MLS in possession, with 57.1 percent. That's just a few ticks ahead of Crew SC's 54.3 percent (fifth in MLS).
Since we all know there won't be 111 percent of possession to split up, something's going to have to give.
There's been plenty of discussion about a Plan B for Gregg Berhalter and the inability for the team to adjust its playing style. Don't expect them to do it here. Combining CCSC's consistency in style of play and home field, it is a no brainer that Columbus will try to control the flow of play. How well it can do that will be a major factor, because New York City has not yet shown it will be comfortable in that situation.
Back to the future
If you haven't been paying attention, Patrick Vieira has drawn some attention in his first season in MLS thanks to the throwback W-M look.
If you're not sure what that means, it's this (courtesy of the folks at Hudson River Blue):
This is how NYC lined up against the New England Revolution two games ago. Note the (somewhat wonky) attacking 'W' shape stacked on top of the defensive 'M' shape. In other terms, it's a 3-4-3 with a box midfield.
It might be hyperbole to say it's been a revelation for the Blues, but it's certainly been a positive experiment. For one, it solidifies things defensively with three center backs, while providing the defensive cover for Andrea Pirlo thanks to Federico Bravo, a defensive mid in his first season in MLS. It also plays right into NYCFC's possession style, allowing pressure up the field and a better ability to hold on to the ball.
The weakness is width, or lack of it. There is no width in the midfield or defensive third, leaving space for teams to exploit. When paired with the matchbox at Yankee Stadium, though, it has worked well — the smaller field means width is less of a concern.
Last week Vieira went back to the 4-3-3, which he had also used in the season opener on the road at Chicago. It was likely just a coincidence that the Fire were the opponents both times, as last week the shift was presumably because of a hamstring pull in warmups by Ethan White.
That said, MAPFRE Stadium is not Yankee Stadium. Traditional thinking would be that the extra width of the field in Columbus would be a detriment to the W-M, and that playing on the road might lend itself to something more conservative. Combined with Crew SC's comfort attacking on the wings with the fullbacks and wingers, and it would seem like suicide to throw the W-M out on the field.
It's possible that NYC could use a flatter 3-4-3, but more likely they pull out the 4-3-3 again.
Which leads to...
The Pirlo factor
Last season much was made of the flop that were the NYCFC DPs. Frank Lampard continues to be a non-factor (and non-rostered), but Pirlo has found his role in 2016. The W-M has suited him tremendously and allowed him to lie deep and focus on ball movement while Bravo shields the back. The result has been exactly as the club must have envisioned things when they signed him — Pirlo pulling the strings of a possession-based attack.
Playing out of that formation a few weeks ago against Orlando City, Pirlo had 133 touches. One. Hundred. Thirty. Three. That's a pretty insane number.
His touch percentage leads the team at 12.14 percent, which is among the top 10 among regular MLS starters this season.
However, last week may have been his least effectual performance of the season. He had just 44 touches and was not among the top 13 pass combinations for New York City.
That was a winning proposition for Chicago. When Pirlo isn't conducting the orchestra, he can be turned into a defensive liability, because it's clear stopping other teams isn't something he's too invested in doing. In a 4-3-3 that means one of two things — either it leaves the back line vulnerable, or it forces the other two mids — in this case Thomas McNamara and Diskerud — to do a lot of tracking back as shuttlers, as opposed to freeing them up to put in work in the attacking half of the field.
Taking claim of the hole
While considering Pirlo's role, look at this NYCFC dashboard from last week's match:
Notice the hole in midfield. New York City is a team that wants to play to the wings, regardless of whether they're in a 4-3-3 or a 3-4-3 and whether David Villa is slotted into a No. 9 role or on the left wing, where he tends to drift even when playing the former (hence the heavy build-up play on that side).
While New York City isn't afraid to take long-range shots (nine of 19 shots last week were from outside the area), it's not attacking zone 14 (just above the box centrally) very often, with only 56% of its shots coming from a central location (29th out of 30 teams in the league).
On the other side of the field, the role of Pirlo as a lone deep-lying mid would appear to provide some space to attack in zone 14. Last week Chicago tried to exploit this, but were unsuccessful. Seven of its eight shots came from outside the box, perhaps poking the hole but not truly pushing the envelope. In Week 1, Chicago took advantage of that setup (and a mess of a defense) and scored three times.
With the potential for Kei Kamara to pull defenders high, and Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay to both cut inside, with Federico Higuain moving through zone 14, there can be an opportunity to overload that middle. Columbus has to try to take advantage of it, rather than just play cross after cross against a defense that has been pretty good aerially.
This is Columbus' dashboard against Montreal last week:
That's not bad, but once the ball moved outside it wasn't often coming back in. The opportunity could be there this week to go inside-outside-inside, and taking that space while stretching a defense that still has some question marks (and certainly flux in personnel...center back Jason Hernandez is the only defender to appear in every game) might be a worthwhile course of action.
Set piece danger
Columbus has had a set-piece issue for a while, and it was victimized yet again last week. New York City FC is not a set-piece juggernaut, but concern is still there, especially with a player like Pirlo pulling the strings on corner kicks or deeper free kicks (David Villa typically takes shorter free kicks).
One thing I've noticed is that NYCFC likes to run corner kick plays where Pirlo sends the ball far post, about 10-15 yards out from goal. Here's what it looks like:
In this instance, Villa is peeling off the pack and dropping back. They've also run it with a runner, like Mix Diskerud, coming in from the top of the box to hammer a shot on. In both instances, teams have gotten caught ball-watching and with the shot-taker completely uncovered.
Crew SC should be aware of this and make sure no one is allowed to float free, even 15 yards from goal, on corners.
Columbus personnel notes
While there will be interest in how NYCFC sets up, there will also be some intrigue over player selection from Berhalter.
The last two games have seen Mohammed Saeid start in the defensive midfield in place of Tony Tchani. Which will get the nod this time around?
We also know center back Gaston Sauro will not play, as a hamstring injury will keep him sidelined for at least a few weeks.
Who replaces him? Veteran Tyson Wahl or newcomer Amro Tarek?
New York City has played four straight games at home, and it's disappointed to not have won any of those.
Columbus, meanwhile, has played four of five games on the road to start the season. Certainly the Black & Gold are disappointed with those results.
While its lone home game wasn't much to, ahem, write home about, it certainly can't hurt to get Crew SC back in a familiar setting with a home crowd in support. On the flip side, we haven't really seen how NYCFC will react to playing on the road (the season opener feels like an age ago, and was too wacky to consider the norm anyway).
This could be just what the doctor ordered.