After Minnesota United eliminated Columbus Crew SC from the MLS is Back Tournament on Tuesday, Crew faithful were left to dream of what could have been if the team had progressed into the quarterfinal stage. The Black a& Gold would have faced off against the San Jose Earthquakes, in what would have likely been one of the most intriguing and exciting tactical battles of the tournament.
So as to not completely be robbed of what would have been an entertaining experience, I dove headfirst into the tactical and individual battles that could have had Columbus fans on the edge of their seat this Saturday night.
Led by Argentine legend Matias Almeyda, it is no secret that San Jose employs one of the most interesting and unique tactical setups in Major League Soccer. Characterized by high energy and high effort pressing, as well as a big emphasis on possession, the Earthquakes have proven to be one of the most difficult teams to play against in the MLS.
What sets San Jose apart from the rest is the way the team goes about accomplishing these things on the field. While many teams (including the Crew) press higher up the field in order to win the ball closer to the goal they are attacking, the vast majority of these teams do so out of a distinct defensive formation that generally holds players responsible for players in certain “zones” of the field. For example, a central forward is typically asked to defend players in the central part of the backline for the opposition.
The Earthquakes, however, apply pressure in almost an entirely man to man set up. This means that players are held responsible for individual opponents, more so than a zone (think of a man to man defense in basketball.) While unorthodox, this style has paid huge dividends for Almeyda and the Quakes as they have progressed to the knockout rounds of MLS is Back Tournament without a loss and a monstrous 11 total goals scored. Their “wear-you-down” style of play has no doubt impacted their opponents so far in 2020, but how would it have affected the Black and Gold?
The Earthquakes and the Crew have both placed a huge emphasis on possession thus far in 2020 and this matchup would have been no different. Columbus is one of the most intricate sides while in possession in the MLS, which would have posed some difficult questions for San Jose. Would the Quakes’ central midfielders follow Darlington Nagbe and Artur when they checked back to receive the ball? Would the Quakes central striker follow Crew center backs into the wide channels? Would the wingers follow Harrison Afful and Milton Valenzuela when they pushed up into attack? Would the Earthquake outside backs follow Crew wingers into the middle of the field? All of these questions would have caused serious headaches for Almeyda and company when game-planning for the Black & Gold.
What is not up for debate is that the Earthquakes defensive style would have led to a lot of individual matchups all over the field, which is an area in which the Crew is exceptional. Whether it’s Nagbe’s silky smooth turning skills in the midfield or the pace of Luis Diaz on the flank, the creativity of Lucas Zelarayan in the attack, these players (and others) typically require a lot of attention to be slowed down.
The Earthquakes have struggled at times defensively in this tournament, especially when there are opposing players with time and space in the midfield running at the defensive line. Oftentimes, it looks as if the Quakes backline isn’t quite sure of what to do when under this type of pressure. The question of whether or not they should stay with their man or apply pressure to the ball is not one they seem to have a concrete answer for yet in this tournament.
Exploiting this space and making these defenders answer these questions would have been a huge advantage for the Black & Gold. The midfield trio of Nagbe, Artur and Zelarayan is one of the hardest to contain in MLS and all three are incredibly hard to contain in a one-on-one matchup. Thus, if and when those three players were able to break free in midfield and run at the Quakes backline, it would have caused major issues for the San Jose defense. If you add that to the prospect of players like Diaz, Pedro Santos, Derrick Etienne Jr. and Gyasi Zardes joining the attack, you have a mouthwatering recipe for a lot of Crew goals.
Obviously, there are many other facets of the game and significant questions could be asked about how Columbus would deal with the Earthquakes attack or how well the Crew would be able to play out of Quakes pressure. But the key to the game for the Crew would have been what the team did when in possession of the ball and how it exploited these potential weaknesses, especially in midfield. Based on the Black & Gold’s technical ability in the middle of the field and the Earthquakes difficulties troubleshooting these issues, all signs would have pointed to an open and free-flowing attack for the Crew in this game.
Sadly, we will never know what would have happened in this matchup, or just how far Columbus could have advanced in this tournament. However, one can safely predict that the Crew certainly would have had a chance to advance past the Earthquakes and do so in style. Thus, watching San Jose take on Minnesota Saturday night might be hard for players, coaches and supporters alike as we dream about what could have been. But for now, we can only wait and hope for more Black & Gold soccer in 2020.