The Columbus Crew is in the driver’s seat for a championship, one win away from the MLS Cup Final. After dispatching the New York Red Bulls in Round One of the MLS Cup playoffs, the Crew followed up with a 2-0 overtime victory against upstarts Nashville SC last Sunday.
In the Eastern Conference Final on Sunday, the Crew faces a familiar foe in the New England Revolution and Bruce Arena. The Revs find themselves in the midst of an incredible playoff run which started with a last-minute winner in the play-in round to defeat the Montreal Impact, before soundly defeating Supporters’ Shield winners, the Philadelphia Union. Most recently, New England went on the road and took down Orlando City SC to reach this game. Needless to say, the Black & Gold have a tough task ahead of them to progress to the MLS Cup Final.
Let’s take a look at how the Crew can defeat New England and host the championship game.
New England Revolution at a Glance:
Record: 8-8-7, 32 points
League Form: W-W-W-L-W
Leading Scorer: Gustavo Bou (8)
Assist Leader: Charles Gil (4)
Player to Watch: Gustavo Bou
Bou has been on a tear thus far in the MLS Cup playoffs for the Revolution. As a Designated Player, there is certainly an expectation to deliver in the biggest moments and Bou has delivered for New England. The attacking midfielder has recorded three goals and one assist in the playoffs, featuring a last-second winner against Montreal and what proved to be the winning goal in last round against Orlando as well.
The 30 year old brings loads of experience with him, including stints with Argentine giants River Plate and Tijuana in Mexico’s Liga MX. Bou has plenty of experience in knockout events and is using that to his advantage. His shoot-on-site mentality has often been criticized but needless to say provides a constant threat to opposing defenses.
Typically, Bou roams in between his opponent’s backline and midfield which both provides him with space to exploit and often provides him with an extra second to decide what to do as the defense adjusts to his movement. Using this extra time and space, Bou has the opportunity to create and finish dangerous attacks for the Revs. The Black & Gold will no doubt keep a watchful eye on Bou throughout this match.
How the New England Revolution plays
The Revolution is led by American coaching legend Bruce Arena, who is back to his winning ways in 2020. Crew head coach Caleb Porter called Arena “the greatest American soccer coach ever,” in a recent press conference.
Arena is most well known for his time with the U.S. Men’s National Team. Cynics will point out his tenure during the 2018 World Cup qualifying disaster, however, Arena is also credited with leading the USMNT to the World Cup quarterfinals in 2002. In addition, Arena brings an impressive resume in domestic American soccer as well, having won an astounding five MLS Cup’s in his career as well as three Supporters’ Shields. Arena has also been named MLS Coach of the Year three times and his fingerprints are all over this Revolution team and have played a large part in their playoff run.
The recipe for success recently for Arena and the Revolution has been two things. Contain teams defensively and be dangerous on the counter attack. A good example of this is their most recent victory against Orlando City. Despite maintaining only 39 percent possession, New England was able to score three goals, all while limiting the Lions to one. New England uses its defending to set up the counter attack, forcing the ball into wide areas before applying significant pressure to win the ball out wide and launch up that same side. With pace on the flanks, including outside backs DeJuan Jones and Tajon Buchanan, and quality in the central midfield, this strategy has paid dividends for the Revs thus far in the playoffs.
When in possession, New England often plays out of a 3-5-2 shape. This is usually achieved by a central midfielder dropping deep to receive the ball while Jones and Buchanan push up into advanced wide positions. The movement of Jones and Buchanan allows playmaker Carles Gil to move into central midfield in an attempt to create a numerical advantage in that area. This advantage often allows the Revolution to put its playmakers in dangerous spaces centrally that can be exploited.
How the Crew can win:
New England is clearly one of the most in-form teams in the playoffs. This is perhaps magnified by the team’s low seed and the fact that its most recent victories have come on the road in tough venues. Despite the danger the Revs poses, there are a couple of key areas for the Crew to succeed in to gain an upper hand in this match.
Firstly, the Black & Gold must make a concerted effort to score the first goal in this match. Aside from the obvious advantages of scoring first, if New England is able to score the first goal, it will play directly into the team’s game plan. If the Revs take the lead, they will be able to defend in a lower defensive block and launch counter attacks into the space the Crew will be forced to vacate to find the equalizer. Contrastly, if Columbus scores first, it will allow the home team to take control of the match and force New England to change its game plan by pushing numbers forward to find an equalizing goal. This is when the Crew can win the ball and exploit the Revs in transition.
Another point of emphasis for the Black & Gold will be to limit the counter-attacking opportunities for the Revolution. Four of New England’s seven playoff goals have come on the break. While this is certainly menacing enough by itself, the importance of this facet of the game is doubled due to Columbus’ expansive shape in possession. Often the Crew will push numbers into the attack which vacates space behind, space New England can potentially exploit.
The Black & Gold need to do a good job when in possession of keeping the ball and not turning it over. If they do this, New England will have a hard time creating counterattacking opportunities. When the Crew does give the ball away, Columbus needs to do an excellent job in defensive transition by quickly applying pressure to the ball as soon as they lose possession. While this pressure is being applied by certain players, the rest of the team needs to work hard to quickly get back into their defensive shape to eliminate the space New England has to attack.
Lastly, the Crew needs to do a good job of controlling the match and forcing it to be played in a way that suits them. Namely, Columbus wants the tempo of this game to be slow, almost methodical. The Black & Gold are much more suited for this type of game and have proven that they can score goals in games like these. Time and time again, the Crew have scored goals with numerous passes building up to the goal. Contrastly, Columbus struggled in games that consist of large amounts of transition for each side. This is where New England thrives.