It has been a solid run of form for Columbus Crew SC, which is unbeaten in its last six.
That said, a lot can still happen in the final month of the MLS regular season, and so Saturday’s home game against fellow lower-tier playoff position squad New York Red Bulls is a critical one (CCSC sits in fifth, New York in sixth).
A full three points is a huge boost to the Black & Gold’s cause, while a loss would pressurize the remaining three games even more, as the Montreal Impact’s mid-week win over Toronto only muddies the waters more.
NYRB will take the field at MAPFRE Stadium on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. EST. Can Columbus take advantage of a week of rest to build a little breathing room in the playoff race, potentially even moving out of the knockout round?
We look at the matchup.
At A Glance
Record: 12-10-6 (Sixth Eastern Conference, 1.5 ppg)
A hot summer run has given way to a cooler swing for the Red Bulls as fall approaches. NYRB hasn’t been bad — it has taken points from five of its last seven games — but it is winless in its last five matches, settling for four consecutive draws.
Although not in MLS play, New York also fell to Sporting Kansas City, 2-1, on Wednesday in the U.S. Open Cup final.
Goal leader: Bradley Wright-Phillips (15)
Assist leader: Sacha Kljestan (7)
Series history: New York leads 30-26-10 (CCSC 16-12-5 in Columbus)
New York’s personnel
This season has been a bit of a journey for the Red Bulls. The decision to move Dax McCarty was one that took a long time to recover from (one could argue that process is still not complete), and injuries have taken their toll in spots.
Combined with an early-season move to a 4-2-2-2 system — trying to fit with the Red Bull way of doing things across the world — this team seemed lost for a while.
Jesse Marsch gradually figured some things out though, and the move to a three center-back system has helped in multiple ways.
The big guns for NYRB are no secret — striker Bradley Wright-Phillips and midfielder Sacha Kljestan.
BWP is sitting on 15 goals and has been among the league’s elite goal scorers in his four seasons in New York. Kljestan has been arguably MLS’ best creative attacking midfielder since his return to MLS, and after what seemed like a slow start to the 2017 season, the American is once again atop the chance-creation charts. He leads all MLS starters in key passes per 96 minutes (3.61) and expected assists (9.23).
Kljestan’s 13-percent touch rate leads his team and is among the highest in the league — everything runs through Sacha.
The problem for Red Bulls is that beyond that dynamic duo, there hasn’t been much offensively. The loss of Daniel Royer to a knee injury has been a big one. No one has stepped in to replace his 10-goal production. Meanwhile, it’s been a lost season for Mike Grella, who was such an important attacking piece in years past.
Alex Muyl’s 4.75 xG is second on the team to BWP.
Aaron Long has done a good job leading the back line, Kemar Lawrence brings some pace and experience out wide, Felipe brings his veteran savvy to midfield and rising star Tyler Adams (10.3 touch percentage) has been a do-it-all guy, playing defensive midfield, wingback, winger and a roaming free role.
The star of the system, though, is the high press, which has long been the key to what Marsch has done in New York. He’s dialed it back a little this season, picking and choosing when to press, but NYRB will press (second in MLS with 14.7 interceptions per game).
While New York often looks like a 3-3-1-3 on paper, much of that is due to the press. The reality is that those wingers are often tucking in to the midfield — especially Kljestan — while the wingbacks spray wide. The fluid setup allows Red Bulls to press effectively while also being able to drop five in defense or overload the center of the field with six midfielders.
The question mark is how many regular starters will play. NYRB still has a lot to play for, but is playing its third game in six days, including a physical U.S. Open Cup in muggy conditions on Wednesday. It’s a giant wild card.
Notes from last week
We saw two different Red Bulls squads this week, as New York rotated heavily.
On Sunday, NYRB hosted the Philadelphia Union and went with mostly backups, including Derrick Etienne Jr., Gonzalo Veron and Muhamed Keita getting his first MLS start. The group set up in a variation of its standard setup, with a 5-4-1:
Per usual, Felipe filled his central role, Keita acted as a roving, dribbly attacker and Sean Davis and Etienne pushed high in the attack. Muyl and Conner Lade played as wingbacks.
The result was New York dominated possession (more than 60 percent) and put eight shots on goal, but couldn’t score (hello, Andre Blake) and settled for a scoreless draw. Kljestan and BWP came on late in the game and their influence was immediately apparent.
On Wednesday, with a trophy on the line, Red Bulls went with a more typical group of starters against Sporting KC. It didn’t matter, as SKC won 2-1, only conceding in stoppage time.
This is what NYRB’s night looked like:
That’s crazy high up the field, and that was by design from SKC.
In a game between two teams that like to press and possess, something had to give. Kansas City is second in the league in possession (just ahead of NYRB), but it allowed New York to have the ball. That pulled the Red Bulls high up the field, helped negate the shock-and-awe New York press and forced NYRB to defend in transition.
Of course, Kansas City has the back line and goalkeeper to feel confident absorbing some pressure.
- Concede some possession — I just talked about how SKC approached Wednesday’s game. Columbus does not boast the defensive quality Sporting does, but it can accomplish some of the same things by being willing to play without the ball a little. New York has not been able to find complimentary pieces to Wright-Phillips and Kljestan, which has watered down the attack a little. That makes it easier to absorb pressure and hit on the counter.
- Box in the big two — When it comes to NYRB’s weapons, only two players are really scary: Klejstan and BWP. If Crew SC can keep track of those two for 90 minutes, there’s a good chance it can really slow the Red Bulls. This is where the return of Artur (who I trust more defensively than Mohammed Abu) can be really helpful.
- Exploit wide areas, stretch the field — The fluid system of New York can be tough to defend, as it allows the Red Bulls to adjust and overload. It can also leave gaps, though, if things go wrong, and it’s naturally a narrow setup. Look at this first goal from SKC:
Look at how much time and space Graham Zusi has out wide.
Not to mention, by forcing New York to play the width of the field, you can make them run on potentially tired legs.
- Survive the physicality — New York leads MLS in fouls per game (14.4) and tackles per game (20.6), according to WhoScored.com. That physicality, combined with the high press, has limited opponents to 11.9 shots per game, which is fifth in the league. Felipe sets that tone in the middle of the field as a master of mind games. Columbus has to be able to handle that and remain focused — something it didn’t do in the earlier matchup this season.
Columbus has had time to rest and prepare this week, and has been in pretty good form. The opposite has been true for New York, on all accounts.
This is a good opportunity for Crew SC, and it will be interesting to see how many players Marsch rests. My guess? He can’t afford to sit Kljestan or BWP, so expect to see both.
Nothing is sealed for Crew SC, and getting three points at home would be a huge step toward a return to the playoffs.
Here’s a guess at lineups for Saturday: