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Crew tweaking Gyasi Zardes’ role to get more from the attack

The Black & Gold boss will utilize the forward a bit differently this year.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Columbus Crew SC Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

When Caleb Porter emerged from his year-long sabbatical to take over the head coaching position of Columbus Crew SC, he knew that he would draw a lot of comparisons to his predecessor. Both he and former Columbus head coach Gregg Berhalter differ in personality but their attacking philosophy shares many similarities.

“It was very much a team that attacked wide. Very much a team that looked to get crosses in,” Porter said of the Crew under Berhalter.

The new head coach looks to have the Black & Gold play a similar style to years past but with minor tweaks.

One of those tweaks involves forward Gyasi Zardes. Porter plans to use the striker more in the attacking buildup than he was in his debut season for the Black & Gold.

“In terms of the runs into the box, in terms of the finishing, in terms of what we are asking him to do there, none of that’s changing,” Porter said of Zardes’ role. “We’re just using him a bit more in the back half to get up the field, to come across ball side to be played in the channels to stretch the game.”

Zardes had a career year under Gregg Berhalter in 2018, scoring 19 regular season goals and another in the postseason. It was a simple formula for success for the striker. He was tasked with getting on the end of crosses coming in from the wings. Rarely was Zardes involved in the buildup, but as demonstrated against the Red Bulls, the forward’s role is changing.

“We’ll still do that (crossing in from the wings), but I also like to combine central and to do that you need to involve your nine at times,” Porter said. “It’s really simple movements, check, pull out the center backs and then just pop it off.

”The major difference that we’ve asked Gyasi is at times, just to show up so that we can get up the field.”

Zardes had little to do in the attacking buildup under Gregg Berhalter, his primary job was to get forward and be ready to finish chances in front of goal. The Black & Gold typically built out of the back and utilized Wil Trapp or Artur as the fulcrum for the attack. Under Porter, this will change.

“His role in the back half, build-up phase is to basically to sit in between the two center backs and just occupy them there and not show up ball side so that we can connect through him, or even played in behind at times,” Porter explained So in the build-up, we’ve asked him to adjust his positioning and his movement just a little bit.”

This was apparent against the Red Bulls. Not only was Zardes moving more around the field at times to be involved in that build-up play, but the forward also completed 33 passes, far more than he typically had under Berhalter last year, and even managed a “key pass” according to WhoScored.com.

This isn’t the only change that the new Crew head coach looks to install in terms of his attacking build up. Porter and his staff hope to get Federico Higuain and Zardes connecting passes through the center of the park. Under the previous coaching staff this concept wasn’t used as frequently.

“I want the 9 and the 10 to connect a little bit more than in the past,” Porter said. “To get Pipa (Higuain) involved, if we are trying to play balls directly to him all the time it’s very difficult. If we can bounce it through Gyasi into Pipa, we’re getting the 9 and the 10 opened up a little bit easier central in the build-up.”

For Porter, any changes he makes to the Crew this year are to help go from a good team to a championship team. Last year, the Black & Gold did not score enough, despite Zardes finishing 20 times, and Porter is looking to get more goals from his side. For the first time in his career, Zardes did not have an assist last season, something that will likely change in 2019.

Getting Zardes to combine more should help Columbus’ offensive production this season but it also won’t change too much in attack. Zardes is still a forward and ultimately Porter wants him, even with the tweaks in the build-up, putting the ball in the back of the net with regularity.

“In terms of the runs into the box, in terms of the finishing, in terms of what we are asking him to do there, none of that’s changing,” the head coach said. “We’re just using him a bit more in the back half to get up the field, to come across ball side to be played in the channels to stretch the game. “