Home points are critical in Major League Soccer, and a win this weekend with the New England Revolution coming to to town is important — consider it a six-point swing between two teams that will be battling for a playoff spot come the end of the summer.
Here’s a look at how the two Eastern Conference foes match up.
At a Glance
Record: 2-3-4, 9th Eastern Conference, 1.11 points per game
NER is winless in its last four, but also unbeaten in its last three, and have lost just once in their last seven.
Formation: 4-4-2 diamond
Goal leader: Juan Agudelo (6)
Assist leader: Lee Nguyen, Diego Fagundez (2)
New England personnel
The Revolution continue to feature some of the more skilled attackers in the league, at least on paper. It hasn’t always connected, and there have been defensive issues in the past, but it’s hard to argue with a group that features Agudelo, Lee Nguyen, Diego Fagundez, Kei Kamara and Kelyn Rowe, many of whom have been somewhat interchangeable in Jay Heaps’ system.
Kamara has not traveled to Columbus, missing a second straight game. His on-field impact has been inconsistent this season; off the field, there will be no return for the former Crew SC star and no hemming and hawing about it among fans.
Steven Caldwell is the worker in the midfield, but he’s been supported this season by defensive midfielder Xavier Kouassi, who was signed as a DP from the Swiss league last year, but never made an appearance after tearing his ACL. He’s certainly been a part of an improved defensive record this campaign.
Veteran left back Chris Tierney may or may not be available as he recovers from injury, but has always had a big impact on how the team plays, flying down the left side and sending in crosses.
Rowe has been the primary fill-in for Tierney, and might be able to be exposed defensively, though he’s proven capable in the position. Je-Vaughn Watson can also play the role, but can be known to over-commit and get himself in trouble.
On the other side is Andrew Farrell, through whom much of the team’s transition funnels when it moves the ball out of the defensive end.
At center back, Antonio Delemea deserves some credit for coming in this season and helping to stabilize the back line. His partner has been a rotation of Benjamin Angoua and Joshua Smith, with Cody Cropper in goal.
How they play
Sometimes when you see a lot of skillful players on the team sheet, you assume it’s going to be some sort of possession-based attack, but that’s not the case with New England.
The Revolution are 19th in MLS with just 45.2 percent possession, and looks to get its attacking threats running at the defense quickly and in space. That’s accomplished through the counter attack, with the fullbacks providing width and the diamond putting numbers in the midfield. Fagundez is often on the left of that diamond and given more free reign to jump into the attack, while Caldwell on the right is more of a prototypical shuttler (he’s been part of a deep-lying double pivot in the past).
That leaves more buildup occurring on the right, through Farrell, Caldwell, Ngyuen, Kamara and Agudelo, while the left side stretches the field more vertically and provides an outlet. Fagundez actually leads all starters with 2.34 shots per 96 minutes.
Here’s a look at the team’s shape two weeks ago against D.C. United:
That dashboard gives you a sense of what NER does. You can see the heavy linking on the right side, with less emphasis on moving the ball through the center of the park.
The Revs do apply some high pressure, which is something that caused Seattle some trouble in the first half last weekend and is a tactical approach that always seems to vex the Black & Gold.
In the attack, it seems the spotlight on Lee Nguyen has faded a bit as of late, but the underlying numbers show his influence is as strong as ever, as he has four goals and two assists this year. The more impressive number, though, is his 3.14 key passes per 96, which is in the upper tier in MLS.
For all the influence Nguyen has, watching New England play reveals how important Rowe is to the team and how underappreciated he is by the average fan. He is, dare I say, the Revolution’s Paul Revere (yep, I went there).
It’s not uncommon to see Rowe play as many as three different positions, sometimes in the same game, as he’s been used at the top of the diamond, on the side or at left back, where he has been in Tierney’s absence. Despite that defensive shift, Rowe’s 13 key passes is impressive — that’s the same number as Federico Higuain, despite having less opportunities to set up chances. A look at players with more key passes this season reveals two deep-lying midfielders and a host of out-and-out attackers, but no one being asked to play on the back line.
Crew SC would be wise to make sure it knows where Rowe is at all times.
Agudelo has often been the benefactor when New England’s attack comes together. He’s had a strong run of form dating back to last season, though his six goals on the season far outstrips his 2.41 expected goals, which might indicate he’s had a little bit of good fortune.
Another interesting note about Agudelo is that just 13.3 percent of his goals have been unassisted, which is a relatively low number for a regular goal scorer. The perception of Agudelo is that he is a tricky attacker who can take on defenders 1-v-1 (his ability with his feet is part of why he sometimes mans the top of the diamond), yet most of his strikes have come by getting on the end of someone else’s pass.
Notes from last week
Unless you were living under a rock, you’re probably aware of New England’s epic collapse against Seattle last week, holding a 3-0 lead after 70 minutes and yet settling for a 3-3 draw.
It makes what happened to Columbus against New York City FC feel, well, not so dire.
Real talk — if you lose a 3-0 lead in the final 20 minutes, that’s bad. Horrific even. But a full viewing of the game reveals that the Sounders were not getting drubbed. In fact, they may have been the better team, even down 3-0.
What New England was able to do early on was cut off Seattle’s favored attacking full backs and disrupt things with some high pressure. Then NER went up 1-0 on a howler by goalkeeper Stefan Frei, and it was able to counter and extend its lead over a team that was going to play to rally.
The Revs were lucky to not concede an earlier goal than they did, including this 35th-minute opportunity:
In the end, Seattle had an expected goals advantage of 2.4 to 1.54. Simply put, the Sounders were able to create opportunities against New England, while the Revolution weren’t creating as many — or as many of high quality — as the final score might indicate.
- Defensive transition — If you listen to the boys on the Massive Matchday podcast (which you should), you’ll hear them talk about defensive transition. Columbus has to do better in this area, especially against a Revs side that has shown an ability to score on the counter attack. This is going to start with defensive help on the wings and having Wil Trapp and Mohammed Abu positionally sound and smart about when to step to the ball and when to cut off passing lanes.
- Avoid midfield turnovers — This goes without saying (READ), but is especially important here because it’s linked to the first bullet point. New England will press a little, and it has the ability to make teams pay by creating high-percentage opportunities; it made Seattle pay in this way.
- Attack with width — The diamond midfield NER uses gives them the ability to link and interchange up top as well as puts numbers in the midfield, but it does that at the expense of width, relying on fullbacks to push up. By attacking the flanks, it allows Crew SC to, first, get behind those advancing fullbacks and, second, stretch that diamond wider and create gaps in the middle. Columbus has plenty of ability to attack wide, and it needs to make it a priority this weekend.
Need proof? Here are each of Seattle’s three goals last week:
What do all of those goals have in common? They start outside, stretch the defense, then play it back to the middle to find the gaps. Even the first goal — the least wide of the group — still features right-left-right horizontal movement.
Food for thought
After Gregg Berhalter loosened his tie and went all wild and crazy by introducing a formational tweak with the 3-4-2-1, everyone has been waiting to see if/when he’d roll it out again. Here at Massive Report we’ve talked about it and brought it up at various points, saying it might be a good tool for a particular week.
Well, I’m bringing it up again.
This is not a prediction Berhalter will go to the 3-4-2-1, but simply a discussion point.
Against a New England side that plays two strikers and has a bevy of attacking talent, a three-man back line would create some defensive balance. At the same time, the setup would not sacrifice numbers in the midfield in order to do so, and would not leave Columbus outnumbered on the flanks.
The two under the striker — presumably Justin Meram and Federico Higuain, although I think Kekutah Manneh might be able to fill the role too if Berhalter is looking to rotate personnel during a two-game week — would either drag Kouassi around or pull someone else out of where they want to be (potentially a center back or Caldwell). And by keeping Meram/Higuain slightly more central while still having wingbacks to cross the ball in, it provides an opportunity to put numbers in and around the 18-yard box to find those gaps to play outside-in.
Just a thought.