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What We Learned: Crew vs. New York Red Bulls

We give our takeaways from the Crew’s playoff victory against the Red Bulls.

Despite having less than 100 people in the MAPFRE Stadium stands, Saturday’s MLS Cup playoff match did not lack intensity and entertainment for the few in attendance. The Columbus Crew advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals with a 3-2 victory against the New York Red Bulls. And the final score doesn’t do the Black & Gold justice for how well the team played in their first postseason game in two years.

With the win, we learned more about Columbus and why this team is a darkhorse to win the 2020 MLS Cup.

The Crew offense is creative again

Head coach Caleb Porter has mentioned that his team is a “good matchup against the Red Bulls” from a tactical standpoint. Two games against New York and the results proved that. The Red Bulls are known for being a team that presses with intensity after losing possession and Columbus adapted to playing against that approach with quick passes to start attacks. In Saturday’s match, the team accomplished this and more.

Throughout the game, all 11 players on the field for Columbus passed a multitude of ways to engineer creative attacks. Fans saw long balls from goalkeeper Eloy Room and the backline and quick one-touch passes in the midfield. Artur and Nagbe frequently switched the point of attack with ball shielding and long passes. There were overlapping runs from the fullbacks and wingers that put them in dangerous positions out wide. The point is, the Black & Gold played with poise and creativity when going forward.

After conceding the first goal, Columbus could have easily just resorted to passing down the wings and looking for crosses, as has been the case at times in the past. Getting that penalty kick shortly after New York’s first goal allowed the Crew to continue its game plan of quick offense with creativity. That’s the way Porter wants his team to play and this style of attack allows Columbus to do good things offensively.

Porter and the Crew excel with time to prepare

The 2020 regular season was a nightmare for coaching staffs in regards to match preparation. With games coming roughly ever three or four days due to the compressed schedule after four months off, the team often relied on film work but didn’t have time to work on much on the field. This made tactical preparation much more challenging than in a normal year.

After the Decision Day win against Atlanta United on Nov. 8, the Crew had TWELVE days before the team’s first playoff game against New York. In 2020, that was a gold mine of time for Porter and his players to rest, train, study film and understand the upcoming opponent. Against RBNY, the team understood the opposition and didn’t allow New York to dictate the tempo with its high press by counter acting that with quick passes.

Having time to prepare helps. Being healthy and rested helps. And it’s a shame fans didn’t see the Black & Gold play often when they have all those things going for them. The only times this occurred was after the multiple restart games and in each one, the Crew looked the team’s best. Regular season start, beat New York City FC. MLS is Back start, crushed FC Cincinnati. Regular season restart, took care of the Chicago Fire. Playoff start, beat the Red Bulls.

The proof was in the pudding.

The Crew is a top-tier side under normal circumstances

The number of factors that played into making 2020 a difficult season are too many to count. COVID-19 infections, minimal time to train, minimal time to prepare for matches, same-day travel for road games, little to no attendance are just a few of the examples of what MLS teams went through this year. Saturday was another glimpse of how well Columbus can play with its top players healthy and their squad properly rested.

We’ve addressed the offensive play against the Red Bulls already so now on to the defense. With tired legs, travel and less rest, the chance for more mental errors and mistakes from the backline increases. The Crew had those issues as the team started sprinting through the schedule in October and it cost the team points. Thanks to time-off, the defense was re-energized and was in the right place at the right time seamlessly throughout Saturday’s match.

Center back Jonathan Mensah played every minute in the regular season but was finally able to rest before the playoffs. This helped him get back to his usual outstanding self alongside Josh Williams as both made blocks, marked well on set pieces and passing efficiently. Fullbacks Harrison Afful and Milton Valenzuela also defended well, especially in the second half. Even wingers Pedro Santos and Derrick Etienne Jr. played a great game defensively.

Add that kind of defensive concentration and execution with Room’s clutch saves, Artur and Darlington Nagbe’s command of the midfield, Lucas Zelarayan’s knack for dribbling in tight spaces and Gyasi Zardes’ goal-scoring instinct and that equals one of the best teams in MLS.

The 2020 season could be a banner year for the club. And if normalcy returns, 2021 could be historic.