It’s incredible to think that a few months ago the thought of playing soccer in Columbus in 2019 seemed like a pipe dream. Months of hard work, dedication and determination have led to this moment. On Saturday, against all odds that “pipe dream” becomes a reality as Columbus Crew SC kick off inside MAPFRE Stadium to begin the 2019 Major League Soccer season.
It’s a new era, filled with new ownership, a new front office and a new head coach. Despite all of the changes, it appears the Crew is poised to have a productive 2019 season under head coach Caleb Porter.
Gregg Berhalter left Columbus after coaching the Black & Gold the past five seasons. Under his watch, the Crew qualified for the playoffs in four of five seasons, even reaching MLS Cup in 2015. Unfortunately, Columbus couldn’t bring home the win in the championship game, losing to the Portland Timbers 2-1.
Taking over for Berhalter is the former head coach of the Timbers, Caleb Porter. The 44 year old returns to soccer following a year-long sabbatical. It doesn’t appear that the layoff hurt Porter, as the Crew went unbeaten during the preseason and didn’t lack in any facet of its game.
Porter and his staff won’t have to deal with much roster turnover this season, nine of the Crew’s regular starting lineup return for the start of the 2019 season.
How Columbus will play
Berhalter laid a steady foundation down during his time in Central Ohio. Fans shouldn’t expect to see much change under Porter. One thing that has been evident under the new Crew boss is his team won’t be afraid to attack and pressure the opposing defense.
The Black & Gold will need to expand its offensive attack and create chances from the wings in order to be successful.
On the defensive end, things appear steady. Harrison Afful and Jonathan Mensah look to feature in the first-XI, and Waylon Francis has proved a solid replacement for the injured Milton Valenzuela. The one remaining position that remains a question mark is the second center back. All signs point to Gaston Sauro, but can he remain healthy following a devastating knee injury in 2016?
Much like Columbus, New York remains a model of consistency. The Red Bulls were statistically the most dominant team in the league last year, setting a record for points, and capturing a third Supporters’ Shield in six seasons. New York made it to the doorstep of an MLS Cup final before being shown the door by eventual champion Atlanta United.
How they’ll play
It wouldn’t be a New York Red Bulls scouting report without mentioning to expect a high press. Head coach Chris Armas hopes to put the Crew backline under duress on Saturday afternoon. Expect the Red Bulls to target Sauro as he tends to be one of the slower Crew defenders in the build-up and could be prone to turnovers when facing the high press.
It wouldn’t be unrealistic to see Porter drop Wil Trapp deep into the midfield to assist the center backs and get the ball up the field as quickly as possible.
Similar to what the Black & Gold saw in November in the playoffs, expect New York to play with its outside backs in an advanced position. Kamar Lawrence and Michael Murillo are quality defenders, but also are assets on the attack. The outside backs will look to feed forward Bradley Wright-Phillips in the middle and generate quality scoring chances.
Despite being 33 years old, Wright-Phillips is showing zero signs of slowing down. He is still dangerous as ever and needs to be taken seriously by every defender in the league. The key for Columbus will be to frustrate him, foul him and get him off his game early.
How the Crew win
It’s likely that Gyasi Zardes will garner much of the attention from the Red Bulls’ defense. It would be a great time for the Crew wingers to step up and find the scoresheet and give future opponents something to think about in the coming weeks.
If a goal is scored from Columbus in this match, expect that it won’t be pretty. Look for the Crew to get men forward into the penalty box and be ready for any second ball opportunities that may present themselves
On defense, look for Columbus to man-mark Wright-Phillips. Should he get an opportunity on the Crew goal, it will come under duress. The Crew must remain compact in the defensive area and not allow easy chances from inside the 18-yard box. Expect Columbus to force the action to the wings and make the Red Bulls beat them in the air.