Columbus Crew SC put a lot of effort this offseason on rebuilding the backline. The club brought in a handful of new faces, including Designated Player Jonathan Mensah, and the team seems to be responding well on the field as the Black & Gold sit on top of the Eastern Conference standings and managed to get two clean sheets on six games so far.
On Saturday, when Crew SC takes the field again at MAPFE Stadium, its rebuilt backline will likely be tasked with its most challenging mission so far in 2017: stopping Toronto FC’s dynamic forward duo of Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore.
Toronto’s pairing has been arguably the most effective offensive one-two punch of Major League Soccer in the last few years combining for 74 goals and 46 assists since 2015. Columbus has already struggled with Altidore and Giovinco, who amassed four goals and three assists against the team on six regular season games.
The big thing about Giovinco and Altidore is that, even though they have completely opposite styles and can be a threat on individual plays, the duo also operates extremely well together and are capable of creating beautiful goals like this with only two touches on the ball.
So, how do you defend a tandem like this?
“When you look at Giovinco and Altidore, there are not many teams that have better quality in those two positions”, Crew SC’s head coach Gregg Berhalter said. “Matchup-wise, they are two good players. Jozy is very strong, a very good finisher and Giovinco is the ultimate playmaker in this league. It’s a tough match up and we want to do it by committee. It’s not the responsibility of one guy. We are going to need multiple guys helping out”.
A key point to prevent damage from Toronto’s attacking duo is denying them the space they need to operate. While it seems feasible to accomplish this with Altidore, who tends to spend most of his time inside the penalty box, it’s apparently trickier to pursue Giovinco, who moves around the final third looking for flaws on the backline he could take advantage of.
Defending the Italian will demand good reading and effective communication between Columbus central midfielders Wil Trapp and Artur, who must chase Giovinco when he is around the box. But the 2015 MLS Most Valuable Player frequently also looks for space on the wings and fullbacks Harrison Afful and Jukka Raitala might be involved on it eventually.
“This is going to be a huge game for us on defense”, said center-back Nicolai Naess, who has never played against Giovinco or Altidore. “They play on a different style than other teams. They come with a lot of players in the box, so we’ll need help from the midfield and from the attacking guys. We have to close the space and prevent the passes forward”.
Crew SC players look to be aware of the threat Toronto’s offense can present and seem to be ready and excited to go up against it. One simple and efficient method to reduce the damage, though, is keep doing what the Black & Gold do best: keeping the possession and controlling the pace of the game.
“They like to push their outside backs really high and they have two quality strikers in Giovinco and Altidore,” Trapp said. “And the three in the middle are busy guys, they get on the ball a lot and they can be difficult to pick up at times because of their movement. We want to have the ball, we want to make those guys work and preferably tire them out early in the game and create our own chances.”