The Columbus Crew’s playoff hopes came to an end on Sunday afternoon at Orlando City SC, as the Black & Gold lost 2-1 in a game that required a win or a tie to get into the MLS Cup playoffs. Derrick Etienne Jr. scored the first goal for Columbus, but Orlando stormed back with two of their own to knock the Crew out of the postseason.
The tactics employed by head coach Caleb Porter weren’t much different from the rest of the season, and neither was the result in what ended up being a disappointing day for Crew fans. Let’s take a look for a final time in 2022.
Tempo and play style in the first half vs. the second
The game got off to a promising start for the Black & Gold in the first 45 minutes, as Columbus was in complete control and on top of Orlando. The Crew controlled the flow of the game for the entire half, never allowing the home side to get a foothold and opening up a lead via Etienne.
Playing with a more relaxed tempo might have surprised some fans given the high stakes of the game. We know Porter wants his side to keep possession and create chances at optimal times, but when the Black & Gold dominated, it looked like when Gregg Berhalter was the head coach.
Columbus kept the ball for long spells of time, stringing passes together and moving the ball from side to side until finding an avenue of attack. Often, the Crew pushed high up the pitch, keeping possession inside Orlando’s half and pressuring the Lions’ defense.
Eventually, Orlando broke. Lucas Zelarayan and Etienne combined on a cheeky one-two and the Haitian winger dispatched the ball into the back of the net. This was the way Porter wanted to control the game, in what was a seemingly perfect half of soccer.
Of course, in typical 2022 Crew fashion, the team folded in the second half. Orlando gained a foothold back into the game because the Black & Gold pushed the ball down the field too hastily. Once the first Orlando goal, Columbus could not get back to the dominance of the first half and ended up losing the game.
The first half was a picturesque example of how Porter wanted his team to play all year. Controlling the game, the ball and the opponent while playing disciplined, technical soccer. Unfortunately, the Crew could not play that style for all 90 minutes, resulting in another disappointing season.
Columbus’ pressing style to keep Orlando in front of them
It’s only fitting for the last tactical review of the season to talk about one of the most prominent topics covered in these articles over the past year: pressing. Porter has employed a few different forms of pressing over the expanse of the season, but the game in Orlando was another example of a unique style from the Crew.
The key for the Black & Gold’s press was keeping Orlando’s players in front of them. This means that Columbus didn’t want to lose track of runners or gamble by throwing too many men forward to win the ball. The Crew simply wanted to apply soft pressure to let the home side know they were there and force them to make bad passes.
Columbus accomplished this by sitting in a 2-4 pressing block and working together to turn Orlando over. The four-up front (Cucho Hernandez, Lucas Zelarayan, Derrick Etienne and Luis Diaz) applied a soft press to the Orlando backline. A soft press is where the defensive players press up on the backline, but just slowly creep up until the lack of space becomes suffocating to the team in possession. The Crew players were not going on an all-out at the Lions’ backline, but letting them know that they were there and close to nicking the ball.
Midfielders Darlington Nagbe and Artur then cut off any split pass to Orlando’s midfielders. This means that the only way the home side could play out of the back was if the Black & Gold made a mistake or if Orlando played the ball long.
This style of pressing was incredibly potent in the first half for Columbus, but the team went away from it in the second half, opting to drop back and defend deep instead which ended up spelling doom for the Crew.
What went wrong
Up to par with the rest of the season, the Black & Gold did what the Black & Gold does best: shoot themselves in the foot. This is why the team was maddening to watch from a tactical perspective in this game because they had it all figured out in the first half, but got in their own way in the second period.
On the first goal, center back Jonathan Mensah, who has been solid all year, made the mistake of being a tad too aggressive going after the ball. Columbus’ defensive plan for the second half was to play a deep defensive line and keep Orlando in front. Mensah saw the ball being passed to attacker Junior Urso and jumped up to intercept but got left in the dust on Urso’s turn and the forward put the ball past Eloy Room into the back of the net to tie the game.
It’s these individual mental mistakes that cost the Crew all year. But unfortunately for Black & Gold fans, the misery wasn’t over.
Columbus later conceded a throw-in that confuse the defense. And when the throw was taken quickly, the away side was not ready for it. Orlando got off a shot that forced Room to make an outstanding save. On the ensuing corner, the Crew failed to clear the ball and a shot by Orlando deflected off center back Milos Degenek, gifting Orlando the second goal they needed from the penalty spot.
The handball isn’t a problem, as Degenek was trying to block the ball and sometimes that happens. But this all starts from the Black & Gold being lackadaisical on a throw-in that forced Room to concede a corner. The focus, passion, grit and intensity have been missing from this team for a long time, and it came back to bite them one final time when Orlando go their crucial second goal off of that sequence.