Playing the New York Red Bulls is always a difficult task for any Major League Soccer team. But doing it on short rest after only playing one 90-minute game in four months is an even tougher ask.
This is what Columbus Crew SC face in the team’s second game of the MLS is Back Tournament on Thursday night. The Crew, fresh off a 4-0 win against FC Cincinnati on Saturday, sit atop Group E but must take on a Red Bulls side — 1-0 winners against Atlanta United on Saturday — who stylistically make life tricky for the opponent.
For the last several years, New York has played more or less the same way. The Red Bulls look to press in key, predetermined areas on the field, hoping to turn the opponent over and create counter-attacking opportunities. Regardless of the head coach or personnel, the team is well-drilled in how and when to press and does so as a collective unit.
This approach often causes issues for teams like the Black & Gold who play a possession style and look to control the game.
“They’re going to try and disrupt us,” Columbus head coach Caleb Porter said of New York on Tuesday. “They’re going to try and make it about the Red Bulls. They’re going to want to play the game on their terms. Good teams want to do what they do well and play the game on their terms and we’re the same. So when you put their team and our team together, there’s going to be a clash of styles and philosophies and it will be about execution.”
Fortunately, the Crew has an idea of what to do with the Red Bulls and that pressing, disruptive style.
Last year, the first under Porter, the Black & Gold went 1-0-1 against New York. While there was a 1-1 draw in Columbus against a number of reserve players to start the season, the Crew went to Red Bull Arena in late July and earned a 3-2 win.
“I know it’s always a hard game against them,” Black & Gold midfielder Artur said of the Red Bulls this week. “They are a very (good) pressing team. They go high on the field and they try to win the ball. I think we’re prepared. We have faced them a few times already in preseason, last season, so I think we’re ready. We know what they’re capable of and we’re going to do everything we need to to be ready for the game.”
A member of the Crew’s central midfield trio, Artur should be one of the Black & Gold’s key figures against New York. Artur, along with fellow central midfielder Darlington Nagbe and playmaker Lucas Zelarayan, will need to be steady in possession and not give the ball away when pressed by the Red Bulls.
Labeled the “engine room” by Porter, these three players have been at their best for Columbus through the first three games of the 2020 season, helping the Crew maintain possession and build the attack. But, due to the close proximity of games in the MLS is Back Tournament and the lack of match preparation, this midfield trio could be broken up for the first time against the Red Bulls.
“We have to be really smart and careful on four days rest with how much these guys play,” Porter said of Artur, Nagbe and Zelarayan. “They cover more ground than anyone. Artur and Nagbe both were cramping after the 70th minute and it was because of how much ground they cover and because it’s their first 90 they’ve played in four months. So we certainly don’t want to have them play again and get injured, but at the same time, if we don’t play them then we’re not quite as strong.”
Managing minutes after such a long time off due to the coronavirus pandemic delay was always going to be a key aspect of the MLS is Back Tournament. Due to the circumstances of the opening game, the Black & Gold didn’t expend as much energy as other teams and were able to get important players off the field early.
Against Cincinnati, Zelarayan managed his goal and assist in just 61 minutes of action. Artur came out in the 76th minute and Nagbe a minute later. These three, despite running the most of any player on the team, still didn’t work as hard as they might have, given 62.1 percent possession.
This may allow Porter and his staff to play the trio, or two of the three, in an important game against the Red Bulls.
“The first thing that comes to mind is the game and the way it went meant that our loads were lower than normal, which is good. That’s the first thing,” Porter explained. “Because we had a lot of the ball, that meant we were able to manage the game and we didn’t have to run and sprint quite as much.
“(Another) good thing is that we were able to get some guys out of the game. So not only was the load a little lighter, but we were able to sub some guys. So we have to look at all those things and figure out, first and foremost, our best lineup to win the game. And then from there, it’s about doing the things that you need to do versus Red Bull.”
What could help the Crew when it comes to taking on New York is the familiarity with the system. As mentioned, there was the success against the Red Bulls last year and the two teams met in the preseason.
In the win against New York in 2019, the Black & Gold went more direct and played on the quick counter more frequently. This willingness to sometimes play the ball long helped the team get out of the high press. Playing in transition led to two of the three goals, including Luis Argudo’s opener and Pedro Santos’ finish to open the second half.
With that said, Columbus still wants to play its game and not completely diverge from the team’s style simply due to what the Red Bulls do.
“I think there’s a certain element when you play New York that you have to be up for, mentality-wise, physicality-wise, and we’ve done a good job in the past of being up for that type of game,” Porter said. “Not being caught off guard with first and second balls and duels and direct play and the disruptive, ineffective style that they play. So we’re usually ready for that but also we don’t get caught up in it so much where they’re doing what they’re doing best. We still have to play our game. We still have to get the ball down and, at times, let it roll and play through them and behind them and get that control that we look for, that we want.”
Another dimension to this game, in addition to three possible points in the regular season standings, is the chance to advance from Group E with a win. As victors in their first matches, a win by either the Crew or the Red Bulls would secure qualification to the knockout round.
This will be the balancing act for Porter in this second game of the MLS is Back Tournament. There is the desire to continue the fast start to the 2020 season and move to 10 points through four games. It would also be a relief to know the team has secured passage out of the group and don’t absolutely need a result next Tuesday against Atlanta United.
But Porter also can’t exhaust his players in Game 2 and risk losing key members for the foreseeable future, even if it means sacrificing a bit against the Red Bulls.
“It’s an important game,” the head coach said. “If you can get through on this game then now you can look at that third game a little bit and you’re not under quite as much pressure to get through. It’s still a regular season game so you still want to get points but it’d be nice to be in that position for the third game. To know we are already through and we’ve got to make decisions and not have to over-cook guys for three games in a row.
“But also, we have to be smart in this next game.”