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Massive Notebook: Setting things up, player ratings and BWP

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Columbus put Toronto in position to pepper the goal, plus player ratings and a look ahead

MLS: Toronto FC at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Word of the Day ...

... chances.

There’s been attention paid to the positives from Saturday, as there typically are after a win. So I’m here to rain on everyone’s parade just a little bit.

To be fair, it was a bit of an escape for Columbus. Don’t get me wrong, Crew SC orchestrated that escape, but Toronto FC had its chances, and many of them were self-inflicted wounds by the Black & Gold.

Columbus took about 30 minutes to settle in, which largely meant turning the ball over in the midfield less and getting a little more midfield support from the outside backs. Crew SC was out-shot 8-2 in the first 26 minutes, and most of Toronto’s chances came directly off of a turnover (Artur, in particular, struggled with this in the early going, giving the ball away while buzzing around and testing the midfield’s shape).

TFC’s goal came off a corner kick, which was originally the result of what was essentially a turnover in the midfield — a rushed clearance that didn’t even reach the midfield stripe.

Defensively, Columbus was actually pretty sound. While Toronto managed to get 19 total shots, its expected goals was 1.39. Meanwhile, CCSC had an xG of 1.51. That’s close, but is an indication that the home side was doing a better job of making sure it got a few high-quality opportunities. TFC, meanwhile, got the bulk of the shots but was limited to lower-quality attempts.

That’s the good for Columbus. The bad was the set pieces it conceded. Ten corner kicks for TFC and five free kicks in the attacking third. That’s 15 free opportunities for a Toronto team with both size, heading ability and multiple quality dead-ball hitters to take shots.

Here’s a look at Toronto’s attacking-third set pieces and key passes:

TFC set pieces and key passes in attacking third

Some of those key passes (the yellow arrows) are irrelevant to this example (though they do show Victor Vazquez’s impact for Toronto), but I included them to show the four key passes (passes that lead to shots) that came off of corner kicks, plus an assist. The green pentagons are fouls won by TFC (i.e., free kicks).

The point is, Columbus set up a firing range for Toronto.


Player Ratings

How did the Black & Gold perform vs. Toronto FC?
(Ratings are on a 1-10 scale, with 6 being average)

THE STANDOUTS

Justin Meram (8) — Meram came alive starting with the final 10 minutes or so of the first half, and it coincided with the team’s resurgence. We’ve seen him score on back post a couple of times this season, but his performance was strong on its own — in passing, dribbles and defensive work (including a key track-back tackle to stop a counter).

Ola Kamara (7) — His job is to score goals, and he did that. His movement was consistently good, per usual.

Niko Hansen (7) — An excellent starting debut for the rookie winger. He showed a little bit of speed, good strength on the ball and good decision making. He also picked up an assist (go check out a breakdown of that goal buildup). In a crowded wing picture, Hansen only helped his cause.

Alex Crognale (7) — Another good performance from the rookie, and against an elite striker pairing. He showed his potential on set pieces when he got a headed assist on Meram’s goal. And this tackle:

Nicolai Naess (6.5) — While his team was stumbling through the first 30 minutes, the center back had a couple of subpar moments himself, but he bounced back well the rest of the way, especially in dealing with Jozy Altidore.

Federico Higuain (7) — He showed how much he had been missed in the previous game. Not a Pipa classic, but his presence was felt, and he seemed to work well with Hansen. His skills were on display in buildup to the goals, and he was credited with secondary assists on both.

THE REST

Ethan Finlay (6.5) — Finlay came in for Hansen and put in a solid half-hour shift. He wasn’t involved in chances, but his fresh, fast legs helped keep things stretched, and he put in his usual steady defensive work.

Zack Steffen (6.5) — Made four saves and dealt with countless set-piece opportunities from Toronto without making any errors.

Harrison Afful (6) — Solid defensively and helped support the midfield, but struggled to connect on forward passes in the attacking half of the field.

Juuka Raitala (6) — Had a shaky moment or two in the team’s problematic first 30 minutes, but settled down and put in a steady day.

Wil Trapp (6) — The steady ball circulation we’ve come to expect, and some good defensive positioning down the stretch; had a turnover or two early.

Artur (5.5) — The good and bad mostly balanced out, but could have been sharper. He struggled in the early going, had some issues connecting with teammates while getting the ball out of Columbus’ defensive third and coughed the ball up. He also fouled a few times right around the box. But he also led the team in interceptions and offered up his constant work rate.

THE INDISCERNIBLE

Josh Williams (N/A) — Came on as a late sub for five minutes.


Look Ahead

Columbus Crew SC at New York Red Bulls, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. EST

NYRB is off to a 3-3-1 start, which isn’t as bad as last season but has been full of enough struggles for people to make the comparison to 2016. Of course, New York recovered from that one admirably.

Was last week a sign the Red Bulls are beginning to break out? NYRB defeated D.C. United 2-0 to snap a four-game winless streak.

We’ll see if things do come together for New York, but it’s pretty easy to point some fingers when looking to determine why the club hasn’t been sharp — the departure of Dax McCarty and a shift to a 4-2-2-2 formation, in line with what Red Bull organizations are trying to do across the globe.

McCarty has always been an under-appreciated player, but that may have really been true with NYRB, where there have been some big names, and where last year the attention was on Sacha Kljestan and Bradley Wright-Phillips. But his void has become clear now that he’s with the Chicago Fire and in excellent form.

As for the tactical shift, sometimes it can be hard to figure out exactly why a team is misfiring, but there are some numbers that are telling.

New York is fourth in MLS with 54.3 percent possession, yet are only connecting on 72.1 percent of it’s passes. No other team that averages positive possession is completing less than 76 percent of its passes.

That seems to indicate that NYRB’s patented high press is still working — getting the ball back quickly — but that the players aren’t as comfortable finding each other ... perhaps because of different positioning?

But New York has at times pulled back into a familiar 4-2-3-1, and it played that way the entire game against D.C. It’s hard to prove causation there (especially since they still sat right at their 72-percent passing), but it seems likely NYRB will roll out the 4-2-3-1 again against Columbus. It certainly puts Klestjan in a better position to make plays and puts some of the other players in more comfortable roles.

Meanwhile, NYRB has replaced McCarty with Sean Davis and Tyler Adams, a pair of homegrown guys. Davis played a bit last year, while Adams is a burgeoning star. The youngster has already seemed to have wrested the starting role away from Davis. While he is obviously talented (and should be playing), he’s also had a couple of hiccups (to be expected). It might behoove Columbus to test him and force him to make the right decisions.

We’ll have a more detailed breakdown of the matchup later this week on Massive Report.

In the meantime, savor this juicy run from BWP: