Last week was a mixed bag for a new look Columbus Crew SC. The distractions are now another week in the past and the players who have to step up have had another week to settle in and figure out how to adjust.
What will that mean on the road against Toronto FC, a team with designs on winning the Eastern Conference, for starters?
Toronto won't be thrilled with how it performed in either of its last two matches, but the Black & Gold have not been a great road team over the last 15 months and it will surely be a raucous atmosphere in a newly renovated (and, let's admit it, impressive) BMO Field.
We all know about reigning MLS MVP Sebastian Giovinco, who is at it again, but what else do you need to know before Saturday's match? We consider a few things worth keeping an eye on.
Let's get this out of the way
Sebastian Giovinco is good. No matter what you do, he's going to get opportunities. So be aware, don't ball watch, stop the ball before it gets to him and hope Steve Clark has a great game.
Got all that? Now on to the other stuff..
What to expect
Toronto FC is mid-pack in many offensive categories, but the club has shored things up on the defensive side and played an attacking style that complements that.
Three stats tell a big chunk of the story: Toronto is fourth in the league with just 11.9 shots allowed per game, first in the league in counter-attack goals and first in the league in long-ball passes.
Missing United State's Men's National Team striker Jozy Altidore leaves a big void for Toronto, not just in goal scoring (where he can be hot and cold) but in hold up play and providing a rock in the middle for Giovinco to play off of (even when he's not scoring, Jozy's touch around the box is generally excellent).
You could see how Toronto struggled to adapt int he first half of a midweek draw with New York City FC. The team came out in it's typical 4-4-2 diamond formation, with rookie Tsubasa Endoh as the attacking midfielder and Giovinco and rookie Mo Babouli as the forwards. Babouli quite often drifted into the midfield to link up and help defensively with NYCFC possessing the ball, and it left Giovinco isolated up top against two defenders.
The second half saw Endoh play a little higher up the field while the two strikers pushed wider, and what often looked like a 4-3-3 seemed to create more continuity.
My guess is we'll see the 4-4-2 diamond again and potentially Jonathan Osorio back from injury in the midfield to help be a linkup while Will Johnson does the heavy lifting in midfield and Bradley operates as a two-way defensive shield and transition starter.
If that's the case, Crew SC will need to take advantage of Toronto's narrowness, pushing the ball into space and also isolating Toronto's fullbacks, who do push high in the attack to provide some width.
Speaking of Toronto's fullbacks, Steven Beitashour is a very good right back. But his last seven days have not been the best. He's been eaten alive on a few occasions. On Kwadwo Poku's goal on Wednesday, he gave the NYCFC midfielder too much time to position himself and get his angle.
It may be a blip on the radar or it may be a mild crisis of confidence for Beitashour. Either way, for a team like Columbus that likes to attack on the wings, it would seem quite prudent to at least push Beitashour's buttons and see what happens. It's something that a guy like Cedrick Mabwati might be able to do.
Make the rookies earn it
On a similar note, Toronto started two rookies the past two games, and both have received regular runouts all season. Columbus has to put pressure on Endoh and Babouli, both of who have played well, but both of who have shown their inexperience at time. The Black & Gold defense has to force them to make decisions, because it's unlikely they'll consistently make the right ones just yet.
Better wing connection
The best way for the Black & Gold to test the potential weaknesses of Toronto is going to be for good interplay on the wings. Last week we saw some changes on the wings, and while there were some positives out of that, there was also, maybe, a lack of cohesiveness on the right side. (I wrote about all of that here.)
First and foremost, the best way to poke and prod a diamond midfield is attack the wide areas. That's something that Crew SC is built to do, so there's no excuse for not doing it. A few things can come of this: Toronto's fullbacks can get pinned back defensively, Toronto's fullbacks can get caught up the field and Columbus can find space between the lines between the midfield and back four.
You can also get overloads on the wings with overlapping fullbacks, and with only one wide Toronto player defending — the fullback — can easily create numbers out wide.
Defending the big one-four
Toronto takes a high percentage of its shots from the central are of the field and leads the league in shots outside the box. Merge that venn diagram and what you're looking at is a lot of threat from the attacking area just outside the middle top of the box — aka Zone 14.
There are many reasons for this, but key among them is Giovinco's propensity to shoot from the area, whether attacking centrally or cutting in from the left, and a player like Michael Bradley will run on from deep and launch shots from that space.
Here's what it looks like when Giovinco is doing his thing:
Here's what it looks like when they utilize the space as a team and let Giovinco make a run (note three players in red in Zone 14):
Columbus has to defend this space on the field, and that will start with Wil Trapp and whoever he's paired with (likely Mohammed Saeid). Do not allow Toronto players to move through Zone 14 unimpeded.
Drag the field
This coincides with the wing play that I mentioned earlier, because it will involved the wingers ability to stretch the field but also cut inside and interchange. With the insertion of Ola Kamara up top, there is the potential for more seamless movement from inside to out, especially with a player like Justin Meram who is comfortable on the ball in the middle of the field.
We already know Federico Higuain roams, so by having players swap and overlap horizontally, you create the ability to drag the lone defensive shield — Bradley — out of the middle of the field and/or pull a center back out of position.
Watch for the diagonal runs that Kamara makes and how they interact with Pipa's movement. It could be the difference in creating confusion and space for Crew SC attackers.