It is officially do-or-die time for the Columbus Crew. After a crushing 2-1 defeat at home to fellow playoff hopefuls New York Red Bulls on Saturday, the Crew is very much on the outside looking in at the 2021 MLS playoffs picture.
With only three matches left in the regular season, the Black & Gold find themselves five points adrift of the final playoff spot. However unlikely, Columbus is intent on doing everything possible to make the playoffs, including winning on Wednesday night against Eastern Conference foes Orlando City. Simply put, a Crew loss will almost certainly see the team mathematically eliminated from playoff contention.
The Black & Gold will be once again without head coach Caleb Porter on the sidelines as he is recovering from contracting COVID-19. In his pre-match virtual press conference, Porter voiced his belief in his players and declared “our mindset is there’s no freaking way we’re being eliminated on our home field.”
Here’s what to expect from Orlando City and how the Black & Gold can take all 3 points to stay alive in the Eastern Conference.
Orlando City at a glance:
League Form: D-D-W-W-D
Record: 12-11-8 (47 Points)
Leading Scorer: Nani (10 goals)
Assist Leader: Nani (7 assists)
Player to watch: Nani
The 34-year-old Portuguese winger has proven time and again that age is just a number in his third MLS season. Nani has been a staple of the Orlando City attack since joining the club in February 2019.
Nani, who is very much at the twilight of his career, has played for some of the world’s biggest clubs including Manchester United, Sporting Lisbon and Valencia. Known for his dribbling ability and his prowess with long-distance shots, Nani had made a remarkable impact since joining Orlando.
This season, in particular, Nani has found his passing boots, as his seven assists this season equals his total from his two previous years with Orlando. Nani has benefited from more freedom in the attack, allowing him to cut inside when on the ball and combine with the rest of the Lions’ attack. The Crew will need to be well aware of Nani’s whereabouts and look to stop the Orlando attack at its source.
How Orlando City Play:
In his second season at the helm, Orlando City head coach Oscar Pareja has been able to continue to find success with this squad. In Pareja’s first campaign last year, he successfully led Orlando to the Eastern Conference semifinals after a thrilling and confusing penalty shootout against New York City FC. Now, Pareja looks to push even further into the playoffs and bring Orlando City the team’s first piece of MLS hardware.
The Lions are one of the better possession sides in the league (10th to be exact) and will look to dominate the play against the Black & Gold. Orlando is adept at turning possession into goals, tallying 44 so far this season with 33 coming from open play.
A huge part of this is the pace that Orlando City possesses in the wide part of the field that is used to break down opposing defenses. With the likes of Nani, Chris Mueller, Ruan and Joao Moutinho roaming the flanks, the Lions usually have no problem outrunning opposing defenders.
In addition to the danger Orlando presents out wide, United States Men’s National Team fans will be very familiar with striker Daryl Dike. Dike has quickly risen to stardom after an exceptional rookie campaign followed by a successful loan spell with English side Barnsley FC. Despite a more understated sophomore campaign, Dike is still capable of finding the back of the net as he showed in the first matchup this season against Columbus.
The good news for Crew fans? As potent as the Orlando attack can be, the team’s defense is equally leaky at times. Black & Gold fans have seen this after Columbus scored two goals, seemingly out of nowhere, in the two teams’ previous matchup this season.
Orlando defends in a very similar mold to the Crew, rarely looking to press high up the field and instead willing to defend in a mid-block. This means the visitors will begin applying pressure just before the opponent crosses midfield. This helps the Orlando defense stay compact but can at times lead to complacency.
Orlando has struggled against teams that have dominated possession of the ball. In fact, in all but three of the team’s eight losses this season, the Lions lost the possession battle to their opponent and struggled defensively.
How the Crew can win:
It’s now or never for the Black & Gold. A loss or draw will almost certainly end MLS Cup playoff hopes. Contrastly, a win will give the Crew hope for a few more days. Orlando City on the other hand could move as high as second place with a win on Wednesday. Here’s what Columbus can do to keep the playoff hopes alive.
Possession, possession, possession. Yes, it is a bit cliché and an overused metric to measure performance at times but in this match, it could make all the difference.
If the Black & Gold can dominate possession it will allow their attacking players to create and find space. Players like Pedro Santos, Lucas Zelarayan and Darlington Nagbe are best when able to find and exploit space. Said space is not always readily available when an attack or possession first starts. However, the longer the Crew keeps the ball, the more space naturally is created for them to attack.
This will also force Orlando to defend for long periods of time. As mentioned above, this is something the Lions really struggle with and something they aren’t particularly good at usually works.
Finally, this would allow Columbus to control the game. The Crew has struggled all year to control matches, which is something the team did very well all year in 2020. If the Black & Gold are able to keep hold of the ball, it allows them to dictate the pace and flow of the game. Doing so would be a huge bonus for the Crew.
In addition to dominating possession, it would behoove Columbus to score first on Wednesday. This seems obvious, but the Black & Gold have only lost one match in which they’ve scored first this year. An opening goal would not only allow the Crew to take the lead but also to strengthen control on the game. In addition, Orlando has only won three times this year when conceding first.
If Columbus is able to control possession and score first, it seems likely the team will keep its season alive.