After one of the most unique regular seasons in Major League Soccer history, the Columbus Crew is set to take the field to begin what will undoubtedly be an entertaining MLS Cup playoffs to conclude 2020. The Black & Gold are set to face a familiar playoff foe in the New York Red Bulls.
The Crew is no stranger to playoff battles with RBNY as the two faced off in the Crew’s most recent playoff run in 2018 in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Let’s take a look at what the Black & Gold need to do to be successful against New York this time around.
Red Bulls at a glance
Record: 9-5-9, 32 points (6th Place in the Eastern Conference)
League Form: W-L-W-D-D
Leading Scorer: Brian White (5)
Assist Leader: Kaku (5)
Player to Watch: Brian White
White has established himself as Red Bulls’ top goalscorer during the home stretch of the 2020 campaign. With two goals in his last two matches and five on the season, the Duke graduate has proven to be a nuisance for opposing defenses. While he may not specialize in scoring “pretty goals,” White excels at finding dangerous areas in the attacking half and doing what is necessary to put the ball in the net.
In addition to his offensive firepower, White is often a key part of New York’s defense as well. As a striker, White is often the first line of defense and is adept at applying pressure to opponents in possession of the ball. This often can and does lead to turnovers that Red Bull look to capitalize on. If the Crew is going to be successful on Saturday, the team must have a keen eye on White both in and out of possession.
How the Red Bulls play
As with all Red Bulls teams around the world, New York plays a very distinct, high-tempo style. Known for their defensive pressing and counter-pressing, as well as their direct style in attack, the Red Bulls are one of the hardest sides to play against in the league. Crew head coach Caleb Porter called the way New York plays as “percentage football,” referring to the school of thought that if the Red Bulls can win the ball back high up the field, there’s a better chance to score and less of a chance to concede. This is in direct contrast to how the Crew plays.
New York has a huge emphasis on the defensive side of the game, making it hard for their opponents to play. Typically pressing very high up the field, the Red Bulls look to cause turnovers in their opponents’ half and attack from there. When in possession of the ball, New York looks to move the ball into the opponent’s half as quickly as possible. Once the team does so, the Red Bulls typically look to attack quickly and centrally, often vacating wide areas of the field to do so.
Upon losing the ball, New York looks to win the ball back as soon as possible, often with several swarming players near the ball. This sort of in your face, chaos-causing strategy is what has contributed to the Red Bulls as one of the more continually successful sides in MLS the past several years.
How the Crew win
The Black & Gold are ready for their playoff push. With several key players seemingly all the way back from injury including, Lucas Zelarayan, Darlington Nagbe and Eloy Room, the Crew is poised to return to its traditional style of play that was successful for a large stretch this season. The focus has now shifted to one thing, beating New York, which is not an easy task.
Firstly and most importantly, Columbus needs to be incredibly smart when in possession in this match. As Porter said earlier this week, “Red Bull are often more dangerous when they don’t have the ball than when they do have the ball.” This is of huge significance to the Black & Gold as they are a side that prefers to have possession of the ball and keep it from their opponents. This could potentially play into the hands of the Red Bulls if the Crew is not accurate and sharp in their passing.
Crew fans certainly do not need reminders of some of the passing mistakes that have led to Columbus conceding goals this year, including Aboubacar Keita’s misplaced pass against New York City FC and, more recently, Harrison Afful’s give away that led to an Orlando City SC goal. Needless to say, the Black & Gold will be punished for similar mistakes against RBNY and will need to be sure to be accurate and perhaps even conservative in possession in this match.
Another area of the game for the Crew to focus on in this match is set pieces, specifically on the defensive side. Columbus has not necessarily proven to be adept on defensive set pieces. Conversely, New York is one of the top sides on attacking set pieces in the MLS. Needless to say, this isn’t exactly a recipe for success for the Black & Gold.
In addition to tightening marking on these defensive set pieces, Columbus can help itself by limiting the set pieces allowed to Red Bulls. If the Crew can limit the fouls given up in the defensive third, the team will significantly lower the number of set pieces they allow RBNY.
Lastly, Columbus needs to have a massive focus on the transition moments in this game. The Red Bulls have continued to be successful in MLS for several years by creating and then dominating transition moments. Specifically, the Crew needs to be very good in the moments right after the team wins the ball back and right after the team concedes possession to New York. As mentioned above, these are the two phases of the game that are arguably the most important to RBNY.
When the Red Bulls lose the ball in their attacking half, they will look to apply pressure right away and win the ball back within the first few seconds. In addition to disrupting a team like Columbus’ rhythm, this strategy also allows New York to win possession close to their opponent’s goal as opposed to winning it in their defensive half.
The Black & Gold will also need to have a huge emphasis on their defensive transition moments. The Crew often pushes numbers into the attack. While this can lead to exciting and attacking soccer, it also leaves Columbus vulnerable on the backline when the outside backs often join the attack. New York typically looks to counter attack as quickly as possible and will no doubt look to exploit this vacated space in the Black & Gold’s backline.
If the Crew is to be successful in this area, the Black & Gold will need to do two things very well. The first is they must apply pressure to the ball right away after they concede possession to prevent New York from playing forward quickly. Secondly, while this is occurring, the rest of the Columbus players need to quickly recover into defensive lanes.
In conclusion, the Black & Gold have several key areas of the match where they will have to excel in order to move on to the next round. If the Crew does this, as the team did earlier this season against New York, the playoff run will continue for Columbus.