The odds of Columbus Crew SC making the 2019 MLS Cup playoffs are very slim to none. Practically zero. However, there is still a lot to play for in the final four games of the Major League Soccer regular season for the Black & Gold. Three road games (Atlanta United, Vancouver Whitecaps, Toronto FC) and one game in the friendly confines of MAPFRE Stadium (Philadelphia Union) will present several opportunities for Columbus as it wraps up this frustrating and disappointing season on the pitch.
With the exception of the bottom-dwelling Whitecaps of the Western Conference, the other three opponents are currently positioned to make the playoffs and/or compete for first place in the Eastern Conference. Columbus has a few chances to “slay the dragon” and end this season on an uptick of sorts.
Before resuming MLS play on the road against Atlanta on Sept. 14, the Crew needs to voluntarily put pressure on itself and compete as if winning its final four games will guarantee a playoff spot. The Black & Gold have lacked a killer instinct in 2019 and proving to themselves and its loyal supporters that the team is capable of showing sparks of being a hardworking, top-shelf team in MLS is the best way to end this discouraging season by going on an encouraging winning streak.
Here are four things the Crew need to do during its final four matches of the 2019 MLS regular season.
Vocal Leader in Defense
Once again, Crew head coach Caleb Porter needs to assign and challenge one of the central defenders to be the vocal leader of the backline to shore up marking, positioning and communication in the run of play and on free kicks. Columbus has conceded way too many easy, wide open goals this season because of cracks in the defensive foundation. This frustrating pattern has become insanity by definition.
Nineteen-year-old defender Aboubacar Keita should be trained during practice, coached in the film room and then given the opportunity to play central defensive midfield in Artur’s position. I’ve written about this previously, comparing this strategic positional switch to what Bayern Munich head coach Jupp Heynckes did with central defender Javi Martínez back in the 2017-2018 season. Bayern and Martínez did very well that season, in part as a result of Martínez’s size, athleticism and instinctive soccer IQ in the defensive midfielder role.
Possession with Purpose
Pedro Santos needs to be the catalyst for establishing long periods of possession in concert with defensive midfielder Wil Trapp. The Crew has struggled to keep the ball moving for extended periods of time and, therefore, isn’t able to utilize the benefits of possession with purpose for creating chances offensively by moving the ball and the opponent’s defense simultaneously. The Crew’s offense cannot just be limited to crossing the ball into the penalty box with mismatches. There have to be more advanced, creative tactical playmaking combinations and runs off the ball in the final third. Gyasi Zardes is a great forward for scoring and distributing the ball in these scenarios. This type of ball movement through possession with purpose is critical when playing the top teams in MLS – which the Crew will be doing during the final few games of this season – and it’s of particular value when competing on the road against formidable opponents.
More Shots from Outside the 18
Pedro Santos, Gyasi Zardes, Luis Argudo and Luis Diaz (plus Wil Trapp on occasion) are fully capable of scoring from shots just outside the 18-yard box. Regular attempts during the run of play to get players in these positions – 1 v. 1 and setting players up with quick combination touches – will give the Crew an added dimension in the final third that’s been lacking while stretching the defense and forcing opponents to make rash decisions in marking, shifting and positioning their backline.
Just something to keep in mind: If MLS had a relegation system like the English Premier League – the bottom three teams are relegated – the Crew, at this point, would literally be one point away from being relegated.
During the final four games of the 2019 regular season, will Columbus Crew SC play like a team that’s about to be relegated? Or will thee Crew play like a team motivated and ready to play with the killer instinct mentality of a championship-caliber team in Europe during its final four matches?
If the Crew wants to compete for an MLS Cup next season, the group will have to beat teams like Atlanta, Philadelphia and Toronto at this point in the season, while taking care of bottom-dwellers like Vancouver with ease.
After some time off, Columbus will start its final push of the season. Beginning next Saturday against United, a snapshot preview of the Crew’s intent and vision for the 2020 season will begin to develop.