After an electric opener at Lower.com Field last Saturday, the Columbus Crew continues its tour of new MLS Stadiums on Friday, taking on Hell is Real rivals FC Cincinnati AT TQL Stadium. This game comes at a strange time for head coach Caleb Porter, as the Crew will miss 11 players for this match due to a combination of Gold Cup call-ups and injuries.
The Black & Gold did add forward Erik Hurtado on Thursday from CF Montreal. While not a big man name, nor a major scorer in his career, the ninth-year MLS veteran will add to the attack — with the ability to play on either wing as well as up top — once he makes his debut.
With such a depleted roster, Black & Gold fans might be nervous for this match. However, hope is not lost as Porter is adept at making tough situations into advantages for his sides. Let’s take a look at what to expect from Cincinnati and how Columbus can gain the upper hand in this match.
FC Cincinnati at a Glance:
Record: 3-2-5, 11 points
League Form: D-W-W-L-L
Leading Scorer: Álvaro Barreal (3)
Assist Leader: Ronald Matarrital (3)
Player to Watch: Luciano Acosta
Despite not leading the way in terms of production for FC Cincinnati, Acosta is usually the focal point of the attack. Acosta attacker has been a main feature in the attacking midfield for FC Cincinnati and has two goals and an assist to his name so far this year.
Those familiar with the MLS will remember Acosta from his stint with D.C. United from 2016-2019 where he scored 25 goals in 137 appearances and was one of the main accomplices to Wayne Rooney for a few years. Known for his passing and vision as well as his ability to beat defenders 1 v. 1, Acosta will no doubt be a handful for the Crew on Friday.
How FC Cincinnati play:
After the Black & Gold baptized Jaap Stamat the MLS is Back Tournament last summer, the Cincinnati head coach has been on a journey to figure out how to win with his squad. Last year, MLS quickly realized that Stam opted to defend in a very low block (park the bus) in order to keep his side in games. So far in their 2021 campaign, Stam and Cincinnati have evolved a bit, albeit slightly, from their conservative and defensive ways.
Make no mistake about it, FC Cincy’s first instinct is to defend. Usually utilizing a low block, Cincinnati is consistently prioritizing defending as much space as close to the team’s own goal as possible.
However, the evolution for FC Cincinnati has come when the team is in possession of the ball. This is mainly due to some offseason additions that have increased Cincinnati’s ability on the ball (like Acosta) and the ability they possess.
When the Orange and Blue have the ball, they are a bit more of a true 4-3-3 formation with three central midfielders, a high central striker and two high wingers. At times, the outside backs will look to join the attack as well, similar to the Crew. The involvement of the outside backs usually comes after a sustained period of possession for Cincinnati as the team looks to add numbers to the attack and break down the opponent.
This attacking movement, as well as the expansive shape that Cincinnati maintains in possession, is the biggest piece of the team’s evolution from the 2020 campaign. The rest, especially defensively, is more or less the same, which could lead to a tense and at times dull Hell is Real Derby.
How the Crew can win:
Porter said in a recent press conference that this fixture is “circled three times on my calendar.” The Black & Gold faithful will feel similarly as the biggest blip on the Crew’s 2020 championship campaign was a frustrating 2-1 loss in the most recent iteration of the Hell is Real Derby. Columbus supporters ache for a win after two draws in the Crew’s most recent matches against Austin FC and the New England Revolution. Despite Columbus’ roster and depth concerns, there are a few things the Black & Gold can look to do to make sure Ohio belongs to them again.
It’s more than likely that the Crew will have the majority of possession on Friday night. There’s a small chance that Cincinnati will look to dominate possession based on the circumstances surrounding the game (i.e. being at home, Columbus’ roster concerns, etc.) but if they don’t, the Black & Gold will likely be on the ball quite a bit.
If this is the case, there needs to be a huge emphasis on moving the ball quickly and switching the point of attack as often as possible. By doing this, the Crew will force the Cincinnati defense to move side to side, creating gaps in the defense. If Columbus can do this often, it will likely lead to chances for the Black & Gold to break down Cincinnati’s low block. This could be a challenge for the Crew, as there will likely be some new additions to the lineup.
As discussed previously, there are moments of the game when FC Cincy will move the outside backs up into the attack. When this happens, Columbus needs to make sure to do a good job defending these extra attackers, limiting Cincinnati’s main form of attack.
In addition to defending well in these moments, if the Crew can attack quickly after winning the ball due to loads of space behind the FC Cincinnati backline. These attacking transition moments will provide huge opportunities for the Black & Gold to attack in a game where offensive space will be a premium.
Speed and pace of play are the name of the game for the Crew in this match. If Columbus can move the ball quickly in possession and attack quickly in transition, the visitors will have chances to score in abundance. If not, it could be another Hell is Real slugfest in Cincinnati.