How long ago the 2015 Eastern Conference finals seem, and how much of a difference seven months makes for Columbus Crew SC.
Tonight the Black & Gold will face off against their foes from that series, the New York Red Bulls. Crew SC bested the Supporter’s Shield winners in that one to reach MLS Cup. Now the two teams are in very different form.
NYRB had a miserable start to the season, but got things turned around in a big way. New York had won four straight games before falling to Real Salt Lake at mid week, but still sit second in the East.
Columbus, meanwhile, is coming off a scoreless draw and remains out of the playoff picture.
Did the club shake off some of the rust last week? Can it figure out how to slow a surging Red Bulls attack? Or shake off their signature press?
Here are some things to keep an eye on when the two clubs hit the field.
Who they are
There seemed to be so much in common between Columbus and NYRB coming into this season. Savvy, young coaches. Great 2015 campaigns. A huge core returning.
Three months into the season, things feel different, at least for Crew SC fans. Still, the Red Bulls should be very familiar to those who were paying attention a year ago, when they won the Supporter’s Shield.
The attack is anchored by striker Bradley Wright-Phillips, who has solidified himself as one of, if not the best goal-scorer in Major League Soccer (he’s currently top four in the league in expected goals + expected assists). Sacha Kljestan is the attacking brain and Lloyd Sam and Mike Grella are the wingers.
Felipe Martins and Dax McCarty make up one of the best defensive midfield pairings in the league.
The defense is the only area that appears different, and that was an issue early on. The loss of Matt Miazga (sold to Chelsea) and a slew of injuries at the position left New York thread bare on the back line and unable to play its system as well as it wanted to. A trade for Aurelien Collin seems to have changed all that, as has the return to health of offseason signee Gideon Baah, who has since had time to settle in to MLS.
What they do
Much as the personnel is the same, largely, too, is the way NYRB plays. That’s not to say there have not been tweaks — in fact, Gregg Berhalter specifically talked about new wrinkles he believes the Black & Gold can exploit — but the general modus operandi is familiar.
New York likes to possess, but its biggest signature is the high press. That’s remained very consistent over the past 15 months or so under coach Jesse Marsch.
Here’s a tactics model from the smart folks at American Soccer Analysis:
As you can see, no team presses more than the Red Bulls.
That’s concerning for Columbus, because it hasn’t always dealt with pressure well, whether it’s panicking deep in its own third or simply coughing up the ball in the midfield and allowing teams to get out in transition.
New York is great in transition (going both ways).
That will put pressure on the back six for Crew SC. This is a game where Wil Trapp can really shine ... or can really flounder. His ability to intercept plays or drop deep and swing the ball forward will be the difference between breaking that press and giving the ball up in dangerous spots.
His teammates will have to be equally smart with the ball.
Offensively, Klejstan has had an unbelievable season. His 4.22 key passes per 96 minutes is the best in the league among players who actually play (he already has eight assists on the season, leading MLS). His 10.5-percent touch percentage is the equivalent of Federico Higuain, to give you an idea of how often the ball runs through him.
NYRB likes to build attack through the center or right side, with Lloyd Sam and Klejstan linking up and Wright-Phillips able to move into space and create overloads. Ultimately, they get the ball into the penalty area — the Red Bulls 29-percent shots from outside the box is second-lowest in MLS (though Felipe isn’t afraid to let one fly).
On the left, Grella is a factor 1-v-1.
New York and Columbus are second and third in MLS, respectively, in terms of percentage of play in the opponent’s third of the field. Something will have to give.
Everyone can talk about the form of New York, but it lost in a midweek matchup with Real Salt Lake.
That shouldn’t affect form much.
The reality is that the Red Bulls left five regular starters on the bench on Wednesday, opting to go with youth — two homegrowns and a 2016 draft pick got starts (as did a continually ineffective Gonazlo Veron). That means guys will be fresh when they show up in Columbus.
In Salt Lake, the first half was vintage NYRB. The visitors controlled possession, won the ball back with high pressure and took a 1-0 lead into halftime. Credit goes to RSL for renewed vigor in the second half, but it was still lucky to take away a victory. The game-winner came on a heavily-deflected ball (though most of the Bulls were ball-watching on the play). And the game turned when Marsch moved away from his standard look and went five in the back by bringing in Chris Duvall (he was at least partially responsible on RSL’s first goal, and the deflected own goal went off of him).
Don’t expect New York to make that same mistake — going into a shell as early as 15 minutes into the second half and completely giving up on a proactive mindset.
The biggest issue for the Red Bulls — and a potential weakness for Crew SC to exploit — will be the absence of Collin. We think.
The French center back received a red card that maybe shouldn’t have been a red card late in Wednesday’s game, and any status of an appeal has been unclear. He is, however, listed as suspended on the MLSSoccer.com preview of this game.
It’s hard to argue that Collin hasn’t been the linchpin of New York’s turnaround this season. In seven games since pulling on an NYRB uniform, his team had not lost ... until Wednesday. When Salt Lake scored, it was the first time in 470 minutes that the Red Bulls had conceded a goal.
Collin’s veteran experience and athleticism have been critical to New York. He can be overly physical and get himself in trouble occasionally (perhaps that reputation cost him on Wednesday), but he’s helped the Red Bulls calm down in the back and helped them emergency defend better, something that Miazga was adept at.
How connected has Collin been to New York’s form? How much will it suffer without him for the first time in eight games?
Chris Duvall may be the replacement, and he (and Baah) allowed Yura Movsisyan to split the defense on a headed goal for RSL, which then won the game when Duvall couldn’t block/clear a Jordan Allen shot.
Regardless of who starts in that spot, Crew SC has to test the replacement. Here’s looking at you, Ola Kamara.
Grelladinho has become a cult hero for the Red Bulls, and he’s continued scoring this season, proving last year’s arrival and subsequent breakout was no fluke.
I point out Grella this week not because of his skills, though.
The winger did not travel with New York on Wednesday because his wife was having a baby. Sometimes we forget athletes are human beings who can be greatly affected by off-the-field things. In this case, it’s quite possible that the birth of his child impacts Grella in Columbus.
Either he’ll be distracted and tired from emotion, travel and, possibly, a long night or two ... or he’ll be riding a high and feel like he has something extra to play for.
That’s why I think he’ll be the X-factor in this game.
Duking it out
Dilly Duka will not play against New York. But his presence, and the questions it raises, remain. Where do all the moving pieces fit into a shorthanded Columbus attack?
Do the Black & Gold go back to Mohammed Saied in an attacking midfield role, perhaps with a more defensive tactical approach? Does Justin Meram get a look in the center of the park, with someone like Cedrick Mabwati out left to provide a different sort of threat?
We know NYRB is going to want to push up high and will be happy to possess. The speed of Mabwati could be a useful option to try to get in behind.
Hello, old friend, we meet again.
There’s not a lot to break down here other than — do it right, Columbus.
There is no margin for error in the set-piece category against NYRB, or the Red Bulls will punish you. New York has 12 set-piece goals this season, the most in the league and accounting for 44 percent of its total goals. Compare that to just three set-piece strikes for Columbus.
Collin will be missed as a set-piece target, but but there’s still plenty to worry about. Klejstan and Felipe can both hit a good dead ball, and Grella and Wright-Phillips are both quality headers of the ball, plus Baah offers a big target, as seen here against RSL, when he simply ghosts off his defender at the far post.
New York is good at defending set pieces as well.
Any time you see two teams that don’t quite match up in a particular area, it would be wise to keep an eye on that area.