The Columbus Crew has the team’s biggest match of the 2021 campaign this Saturday at home against New York Red Bulls. New York is just two points above the Black & Gold in the Eastern Conference standings the MLS regular season winds down.
As each side looks to make a final push for the MLS Cup playoffs, this match represents a huge opportunity for either team to gain an advantage in the East.
The Red Bulls enter this match having won three games in a row and four of their last five matches. The Crew will enter this match off the back of a hard-fought draw with Nashville SC on Wednesday and without forward Gyasi Zardes.
Here’s what you can expect from both sides and how Columbus can strengthen its playoff position.
New York Red Bulls at a Glance:
Record: 11-7-11, 30points
League Form: W-W-W-D-W
Leading Scorer: Patryk Klimala (8)
Assist Leader: Fabio (6)
Player to Watch: Patryk Klimala
Crew fans will be relatively familiar with Patryk Klimala after watching him score the opener at Lower.com Field just over a month ago. Since that goal, Klimala has caught fire, scoring four goals in eight matches.
The 21-year-old Polish international quickly adjusted to MLS in his first year after joining from Celtic FC. Klimala is a classic goal poacher, meaning he is adept at being in the right place at the right time and finding the back of the net. In fact, his aforementioned goal against Columbus was a great example of this.
Keeping a clean sheet will be a huge boost for the Black & Gold on Saturday and stopping Klimala will be important at a chance to do so.
How New York Red Bull play:
New York is one of the most in-form teams in the MLS currently. Unbeaten in their last seven matches, five wins, means that the Red Bulls have once again found themselves in the mix for a playoff spot. First-year head coach Gerhard Struber has found the right mix for his side and has reaped the benefits of doing so in the last month or so.
The Red Bulls place a huge emphasis on the defensive side of the game and make it hard for the opponent to play. Typically pressing very high up the field, New York looks to cause turnovers in the opposition half and attack from there.
When in possession of the ball, the Red Bulls look to move the ball into their opponent’s half as quickly as possible. Once they are able to do so, New York typically looks to attack quickly and centrally, often vacating wide areas of the field to do so.
Upon losing the ball, the Red Bulls look to win the ball back as soon as possible. This often means several nearby players swarming the ball and applying pressure. This sort of in-your-face, chaotic strategy is what has contributed to New York as one of the more consistent sides in the league over the past several years, despite the team’s 2021 record.
This playing style represents a unique challenge for Columbus, who prefers to play a slower, more methodical and patient type of game.
How the Crew can win:
As mentioned, this is a huge match for the Black & Gold. In fact, head coach Caleb Porter has called it a “must win” match in the press this week. The Crew can ill afford to go five points behind the Red Bull, who also have a game in hand on Columbus. This begs the question, how can the Black & Gold win this match?
Firstly, the Crew needs to do a good job controlling the tempo of the game. As previously discussed, New York looks to dictate the tempo and force Columbus to play in a high-tempo, fast-paced match. The Black & Gold are much better when they are able to control the pace and play a more methodical, patient type of game.
There are two ways for the Crew to go about doing this. The most obvious way is to dominate possession throughout the match. If Columbus does this, it will effectively counteract the Red Bulls by forcing the team to defend for long periods of time and not allowing them to speed up the tempo with their own play.
The Black & Gold could also sit off and allow New York to have the majority of the possession in this match. This may sound counterintuitive, however, it is something the Crew has done in the past, including in the team’s road win against Atlanta United earlier this year and at times against the Red Bulls.
This idea would force the Red Bull to break the Crew defense down in possession and slow the tempo of the game. This is largely due to some of the deficiencies New York has in possession. This strategy would also allow Columbus the opportunity to break out in attacking transition and attack the Red Bulls that way.
Secondly, the Black & Gold will need to handle the pressure they will be under when they do have the ball, specifically in their own half. Far too many times this year, the Crew has had costly turnovers against high-pressing sides that have led to goals conceded. These mistakes have cost Columbus points all season and cannot be repeated on Saturday.
There will be moments when the backline and midfield are under intense pressure in their own half. Avoiding costly mistakes under this pressure is a must in this match.
Lastly, the Black & Gold will need to be incredibly sharp in two additional defending set pieces and in transition. The Crew will be well aware of both of these as these two areas have led to both of the goals conceded by Columbus against New York this year.
To counteract these moments, the Black & Gold needs to focus on a few things. On set pieces, the Crew needs to do an excellent job of winning the first and second balls in and around the penalty box. Columbus struggled at times to win second balls around the box and effectively clear the ball. These second balls specifically will be a mouth-watering prospect to a Red Bull side that puts an emphasis on this to create goal-scoring opportunities.
In addition to doing a good job winning first and second balls on set pieces, the Black & Gold need to limit the Red Bulls' opportunities to quickly transition in attack. New York typically looks to attack as quickly as possible upon winning the ball back and will look to expose the Crew in this area on Saturday.
The first few moments after Columbus loses the ball on Saturday will be vital to success. If the Black & Gold can successfully apply pressure to the ball quickly and counter-press the Red Bulls while the rest of the team quickly recovers their defensive positions, they will limit a large portion of the opponent’s attack. However, if the Crew struggles in this area of the match, it could prove to be costly over the course of 90 minutes.