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The pressing onslaught vs. the timely press will be key in Crew vs. Red Bulls

Which style will win out on Saturday?

MLS: Eastern Conference Semifinal-Columbus Crew SC at New York Red Bulls

Pop quiz… Who is Caleb Porter’s most revered coaching idol? If you guessed Pep Guardiola, you would be correct! The worldly-renowned manager who has led Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City is notorious for his innovation and aesthetically pleasing attacking soccer. A famed facet of his play is what is known as the “five-second rule.” Where after losing the ball, the now defending team has five seconds to retrieve the ball, or, if unsuccessful in doing so, tactically delaying the opponent in an attempt to allow the defense to drop and gain its defensive shape.

The Battle of the Pressing Teams

The influence of Pep is apparent in how Porter’s Crew team will differ from previous coach Gregg Berhalter’s Crew squad of the last several years. Porter has taken the same 4-2-3-1 formation run by Berhalter and tweaked it by implementing a counter-press style. Similar to the five-second rule, the idea is that the press is initiated the moment the Crew lose possession. The response is an all-out attempt to gain possession back within seconds. Should the ball not be regained in an efficient amount of time, the priority then switches to dropping into proper defensive shape. In instances where the Crew loses the ball in the offensive third, the counter-press scheme is predicated on being able to win the ball back by players being positioned higher up the field and defensively situated in a way that it minimizes any potential counter.

The counter-press being applied is not the same as the infamous high-press that is played by the Crew’s opening day opponent, the New York Red Bulls. In conjunction with their energy drink namesake, the Red Bulls execute a hectic yet composed high-press that is orchestrated by each of the Red Bull soccer clubs worldwide. Also set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, this style of play involves unnerving the opposition by minimizing passing lanes and strategically guarding areas of the field. Once they earn possession, the Red Bulls attack at a blistering pace with their speedy wingers and team all-time leading goalscorer, striker, Bradley Wright-Phillips.

What should we expect to see from the Crew?

If Caleb Porter has his way, he wants the history books to show two words to be synonymous with this Crew team: control and domination. Control of the game by possessing with a purpose and dominating all thirds of the field with numerical superiority. In a recent post-training interview, Porter recounted during the FC Cincinnati preseason match, the Crew were able to connect 10 consecutive passes all whilst incorporating 10 different players touching the ball along the way. He made it clear that this is an “example of the type of soccer we want to play.”

Porter and company will be looking to catch the high-pressed Red Bulls off guard with the counter-press and exploit their high line with a swift counter-attack. Crew maestro Federico Higuain will need to penetrate the high-press with through balls to on running attackers, Gyasi Zardes, Justin Meram and the reinvigorated, Pedro Santos. Porter has stated ad nauseam that he needs production from his wingers. Teams with high-press and attacking fullbacks like the Red Bulls are perfect fodder for productivity via wing play. Perhaps the insertion of newly acquired winger, Robinho as a second half substitute could be the most advantageous avenue to accomplish such a feat.

Defensively, the center midfield duo of captain Wil Trapp and Brazilian Artur are responsible for disrupting opponents. This task of disruption is even more pertinent against a high-pressing squad. The Red Bulls bread and butter is quick and deliberate passing towards goal. Meram explained that one tweak from the Berhalter 4-2-3-1 to the Porter version, is that it is critical that they are consistently mindful of “how are we dictating the opponent in their half?” Rather than playing more conservatively and absorbing pressure, the immediate response is to regain possession.

How about the Red Bulls?

The Red Bulls will be seeking to do what they always do, which is keep the Crew off balance and force them into costly gaffes in the run of play. As Porter explained, “they press and want to deny a passing team the ability to pass and possess.”

Wright-Phillips is as clinical of a finisher as you will find MLS. Attacking midfielder Kaku assisted on 14 goals last year, 13 of which occurred after the MLS All-Star Game. While it took him a couple of months to acclimate to the league, few players were as dangerous with the ball at their feet as Kaku in the second half of the season. How the expected Crew center backs of Jonathan Mensah and Gaston Sauro manages this onslaught will be imperative to the overall outcome.

An easily overlooked aspect of the Red Bulls’ attack is the distribution ability of goalkeeper Luis Robles. He can effectively kickstart the Red Bull attack after a timely save and quick downfield pass. His throws are on point and generally with the necessary lead to allow his receiving teammate to run onto the ball in stride.

The Opener

With the Crew looking to be hitting the ground running in pre-season and the Red Bulls already being two meaningful games into their 2019 season (they recently won a two-game series in the CONCACAF Champions League), this has all the makings of an entertaining game. While Porter downplayed any potential emotions for the March 2 opener, you have to imagine his return to the sidelines for the first time in over a year will be a memorable moment in his already successful career. Which pressing style will come out on top is anybody’s guess. Porter emphatically stated this match is a “measuring stick to see where we’re at” and he couldn’t be more spot on. By Saturday night’s end, we shall see who is the best at the press.