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Caleb Porter’s Crew formation remains a work in progress

The new Black & Gold head coach is open to tinkering with his lineup when necessary.

MLS: Carolina Challenge Cup-Chicago Fire at Columbus Crew Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Crew head coach, Caleb Porter has been tinkering with a variety of formations and lineups he recently told reporters, in an attempt to find the best combination for kicking off a successful 2019 season. In Portland, Porter predominantly ran a 4-2-3-1 and at times a variation of a 4-3-3. Theoretically, Porter could just plug and play with this current Crew squad, building on what Gregg Berhalter implemented the last five years, though the roster is lacking a stable of true wingers. After a recent training, Porter told Massive Report a switch to either a classic 4-4-2 or a diamond 4-4-2 is being considered. He has even kicked around the idea of utilizing the atypical 3-5-2 scheme, a formation he has “studied a lot lately.”

Most imperative for a Porter coached squad is dominating the central midfield. It was the Timbers bread and butter during their MLS Cup run in 2015. He leaned heavily on the likes of Diego Valeri, Darlington Nagbe and Diego Chara. His midfield trio with the Crew will likely be Federico Higuain, Wil Trapp and Artur.

A catalyst to any Porter midfield is having a definitive No. 10 attacking midfielder that, as Porter stated, “can unlock a defense.” He had that key with Valeri in Portland and has the same in Columbus with Higuain. Nagbe was a roamer on the field and Chara was the defensive stalwart who broke up counterattacks. As far as Major League Soccer standards go, Trapp and Artur are serviceable at worst and upper-echelon at best. While they possess different strengths than Chara and Nagbe, their abilities are prominent. Though these differences in attributes are likely what is prompting the wheels in Porter’s head to spin, in an effort to pinpoint the foremost system for his roster.

Contrary to popular belief, Porter isn’t one to be married to a specific formation. His method of operation is to put his players in the best position possible to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. He is not one to force the proverbial square peg into a round hole.

Porter referencing a 4-4-2 seems a bit surprising on the surface, as the classic 4-4-2 formation (or Flat 4-4-2) is often deemed antiquated or predictable. Historically known to be dynamic in his approach, consideration of such a switch may seem unusual at first glance, though the idea is getting his best 11 players on the field. Caleb sees goalscoring potential with his collection of strikers. How can he get two on the field instead of just one? First-round SuperDraft pick, JJ Williams has potential to contribute if he can be paired with a striker partner able to take some of the heat off him. Patrick Mullins has scored goals in this league. And we all saw what Gyasi Zardes did last season.

So how does the classic 4-4-2 work? The Flat 4-4-2 has four defenders, four midfielders and two strikers, with the midfielders and defenders lined up in flat lines. Any formation has its pros and cons. The 4-4-2 pros are that it’s simplistic due to defined roles, theoretically three blocks of defense, and two strikers working in tandem. The prototypical strike duo in this formation is generally composed of a ‘Thunder and Lightning’ combination, consisting of a big-bodied striker who can win aerial battles and hold the ball for his pacier strike partner. The most recent championship run by an MLS team using this method was the 2010 Colorado Rapids, with Omar Cummings playing the part of the lightning and Conor Casey as the thunder.

The most pertinent drawback of the Flat 4-4-2 is that the attack can be predictable and very direct. Again, an aspect of play not typical of Porter. Moreover, this often leaves the center of the midfield exposed when opposing teams utilize three or four central midfielders. The two central midfielders in the 4-4-2 can become isolated and outgunned. How might a 4- 4-2 look with this current Crew roster?

Numerical superiority in the middle of the field is the foundation of the 4-4-2 Diamond formation. It has four dedicated central midfielders positioned in a diamond, with the top of the diamond being the engine for the offense and the bottom point, often nicknamed “the destroyer” is responsible for cleaning up attacks before they reach the backline. The left and right central midfielders need to be versatile. They hold various responsibilities of a typical central midfielder, but also of that an outside midfielder

Consequently, the diamond is a very narrow formation due to the lack of wide positioned players. The majority of wide play will come from overlapping fullbacks. In turn, the backline is left unprotected to counterattacks. Furthermore, the diamond four need to play as a true unit in order to be most effective. Who fills the fourth center midfield spot in this scheme is a mystery with this Crew roster. Newly acquired Robinho is listed as a classic winger, thus the question becomes is he suited to and disciplined enough to stay more centralized in such a formation? Would Porter elect to have more veteran players like Meram or Pedro Santos in that role? Might Ricardo Clark earn the starting nod?

In a league full of parity, it is critical to stay dubious, so Porter is insistent on “throwing in a wrinkle to be unpredictable.” He hinted at the possibility of featuring a 3-5-2 formation (some consider it a 5-3-2). This scheme features three center backs with wingbacks on each sideline, which is where the width play transpires. Depending on the situation presented and defined roles, this configuration can quickly revert to a 5-3-2 formation. The wingbacks positioning and responsibilities are dependent on if the formation is more geared towards being a 3-5-2 or a 5-3-2.

The three central midfielders play as a triangular unit. In more offensive situations, the tip of the triangle will be positioned behind two attackers.

Conversely, when on the defensive, the triangle will invert and have the point be in the offensive position and the other two players sitting back absorbing opposition counters.

To assist in fortifying the backline, the defensive midfielder will drop between the center backs, granting the wing backs freedom to push into the attack. Lastly, two forwards are positioned up top for maximum attacking capabilities.

If blessed with the proper personnel, the 3-5-2 is extremely effective and versatile. It allows teams to field two strikers, yet still possess a numeric advantage in the midfield. I do stress the “proper personnel,” as this formation can be disastrous without it. While implementing this new concept, coaches must be cognizant of whether their 3-5-2 is merely going through inevitable growing pains of executing a new system or is it that the team is not duly equipped to prosper in the scheme.

A critical aspect to the success of this formation is the center backs need to be extremely disciplined, as to not be drawn out of position. Doing so would leave the backline severely vulnerable. It is all but a guarantee that Jonathan Mensah will be one of the starting center backs in any formation. Beyond him, it is up in the air on who starts next to him between Gaston Sauro, Lalas Abubakar or homegrown talent Alex Crognale.

If Porter stays with the preferred 4-2-3-1 as was the case in the first game of the Carolina Challenge Cup, we will likely see a very similar starting XI to start the season as we did versus the Chicago Fire.

Porter did bring on Robinho in place of Santos in the game’s final minutes. “He brings something a little bit different to what I would view as the winger/wide-attacking midfielder position,” Porter said of Robinho. “First of all, I like to have options on the wings because I think a lot of your tactical variation comes through different player profiles and their strengths that they bring. And I like to have different profiles on the wings.”

Zardes and Higuain performed very well in the first preseason game of the season. Zardes tallied a goal off a nice header, thanks to a wonderful cross from outside back Waylon Francis. Higuain was everywhere on the field, running from box to box and creating a multitude of scoring chances. He did seem to wear down around the 60th minute or so, eventually being replaced by Ricardo Clark, but it should be noted that his role changed following the red card to Wil Trapp in the 30th minute.

As the roster stands right now, the coaching staff must decide which formation is best suited to yield positive results. It is certain that we will see a variety of formations and lineups as the season begins, as the coaching staff tinkers and re-tools to find the most potent mix. What players will step up and gain their rightful roles with this new Crew coaching regime remains to be seen. March 2 can’t come fast enough.