Caleb Porter has said his style will be an evolution for Columbus Crew SC. The first-year head coach likes the team that he inherited and the way Gregg Berhalter had the group playing. There’s logic to that. This is a team that made the playoffs four of the last five years and Porter had half an offseason to work with after being named coach on Jan. 4.
While Porter like what Berhalter left for him and the system already in play, he did say that he will bring his own wrinkles to how the team plays. That first wrinkle was apparent during the Black & Gold’s preseason as the team implemented an aggressive press, something that Berhalter would use only occasionally.
To be clear, Porter’s press isn’t the relentless pressure that the New York Red Bulls deploy, constant pressure to unsettle an opponent no matter where they are on the field. The ideal Crew press “is using the defending to attack by winning the ball in good spots” according to Porter.
Porter doesn’t want press, he wants to counter-press.
The concept of the counter-press is that it is limited to a short burst of activity. The press begins immediately after the ball is lost. In Porter’s ideal, if the Crew hasn’t won the ball back within seconds, either with an immediate turnover or an aimless long ball forward, the teams will get back to the ‘mid-block’ or standard defensive shape.
A successful counter-press can be devastating. Saturday’s preseason game against FC Cincinnati wass a prime example. FCC played in a defensive shape that limited possession-based attacks. Columbus was the aggressor from the start. They had the ball nearly exclusively in the first five minutes of the game. When the Crew did lose the ball, it was in the attacking third of the field. The attack was on the edge of the 18-yard box and there were 10 men in the Cincinnati half.
As soon as the Crew turned the ball over, the counter-press went into action. Gyasi Zardes closed down the center back on the ball. Federico Higuain, Justin Meram and Pedro Santos put a body on the next option to pass to. The fullbacks and central midfield took away second options, while Jonathan Mensah and Gaston Sauro clamped down on any long balls.
It was a concerted effort by every player on the team to get to the right spots to limit FC Cincy. The result was often a turnover in the offensive half of the field and another Crew attack. Columbus scored twice in the first 20 minutes. Cincinnati got a red card in the 30th minute and the game was all but over.
That opening half hour exemplified what Porter is looking for, saying after the game “(the team is) well drilled but they’re taking on the habits that we’re trying to create to add... even more quality.”
Porter later elaborated, “The only way we’re going to have the ball is defend well, defend as a team and be bought in to the counter-pressing.”
It’s clear after the FCC game, the team is “buying in.”
Santos echoed his head coach’s thoughts after the game.
”When we played 11 v. 11. We did an amazing job,” the winger said. “We did everything we worked on in training and the things happened, the opportunities happened and we scored two goals”
FC Cincinnati didn’t provide the strongest test, but they did highlight a primary weakness of the counter-press, that once it’s broken, it can lead to high-quality chances for the opponent. Without the ability to play out of the back, Cincinnati opted to play long. Sauro and Mensah usually had no problem cleaning up the danger, but Mensah earned a yellow card and gave away a dangerous free kick off a long clearance forward that he struggled to deal with.
This style relies on solid center back play to handle long passes toward opposing forwards. Roland Lamah and Fanendo Adi were able to cause the Crew backs some problems. Without flawless play from Mensah and his center back partner, stronger attackers are likely to have more success.
Columbus enjoyed success against a poor FC Cincy team. Other teams won’t wilt as easily in the face of the pressure. As soon as Saturday, the Crew will have to deal with teams that successfully bypass the counter-press. It will be a test to see how the lines of pressure react as opponents break containment. If they don’t get an immediate turnover or slow the attack, there will be a defensive mismatch and the ideals of team defense suddenly become a series of one-on-one matchups.
The last danger to pressing is a longer-term impact. Pressing is physically taxing and the wear and tear of an MLS season effects even the fittest players. How this will impact the Crew, especially when three of the starting front four is 30 years old or older, is a big question for this team.
But the way Porter wants to run his press, actually a counter-press, the players actually expend more energy dropping into a defensive position after an attack than pressuring the opponent when the ball is turned over. That’s math that makes sense if the Crew win the ball back and win by possession. If the press starts to falter, Columbus is doing both, pressing and dropping back into defensive blocks.
The tradeoffs are worth it to the Crew because, in Porter’s eyes, possession is everything. It’s why, even after the team won 3-0, he said was most impressed by the team’s ability to swarm and get the ball back. The counter-press made for a routine 3-0 win. Will it be made for the weekly play of MLS?