It’s not too often the Columbus Crew plays in a baseball stadium. But this Friday, the Crew will play in a baseball stadium.
The Black & Gold travel to the Bronx for a weekend encounter with New York City FC at its true home ground, Yankee Stadium. The home of the New York Yankees hasn’t hosted Columbus since August 2019. The last two road matches for the club against NYCFC were played at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey.
Some might think the change in scenery won’t affect the soccer all that much, but it will greatly. Yankee Stadium is the most unique pitch in Major League Soccer with the Black & Gold having only won once in the Bronx on the smaller field. That win was six years ago.
“It’s definitely tight. It’s 70 yards wide,” said Crew head coach Caleb Porter this week. “We actually lined our second pitch (at the OhioHealth Performance Center) in that width so that we can train and get acclimated to that width. It doesn’t seem like it’s a lot more narrow but five yards is a lot.”
The field at Yankee Stadium is five yards more narrow than most MLS grounds, including the Crew’s new home Lower.com Field, with a length of 110 yards. That makes the pitch among the smallest allowed by FIFA guidelines and forces certain tactical adaptations. New York City FC has become accustomed to the pitch size and in 2021 has won two of its three games in its true home stadium by a 5-0 scorline.
The most recent win for NYCFC came on Sunday against Orlando City SC and Porter pointed out that the Lions committed turnovers and were pinned back by City’s transition. The pitch being as narrow as it is causes the game to be played in the middle of the field and with players converging on each other more.
“I think what happens is there are a few more transitions in the game because you tend to lose the ball a bit more,” said Porter. “Things are a little tighter, especially with the way they play. They are a team that is very good in duels, they press, they are aggressive and it’s a tight pitch. If you are not careful, you will get turned over.”
Columbus has in-game practice playing more narrow with the switch to a 4-4-2 formation in Saturday’s win against Atlanta United. The Crew’s wingers were more inverted and didn’t run too wide to counter Atlanta’s offensive transitions. These players were also asked to defend more often and the wingers played a part in the clean sheet at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
This tactic could get utilized again at Yankee Stadium and the narrowness of the pitch does play to the Crew’s greatest strength, its defense.
“You got to be ready to play a little quicker to support a little earlier.” said Porter. “It’s more difficult to use the width. The center is the same, you can still create combination central, you can still create width, but without an extra three or two and a half yards on each side for your overlaps, some of those crossing positions get tricker.
“It’s easier to get pressure on the ball. It’s easier to defend and those are good things that will help us on the road.”
Friday is a chance for the Crew to sweep the three-game regular season series with New York City after getting 2-1 wins in New Jersey and Columbus earlier this year. The small pitch will require being strong on the ball, being accurate in possession and creating through the middle of the field. Columbus has the tactics and player personal to execute this plan in the baseball stadium.
“You need to make sure you have technical players that can keep the ball,” said Porter. “And you need to have players that are smart and good under pressure.”