The Columbus Crew picked up a vital three points in dramatic fashion on Saturday night, winning 2-1 against the New York Red Bulls in the home regular season finale at Lower.com Field. New York seemed to have the win in the bag until the Black & Gold ramped up the intensity in the final five minutes to steal a win thanks to a Derrick Etienne brace after the 89th minute.
This result keeps Columbus in eighth place in the Eastern Conference, but even on points with seventh place Inter Miami and sixth place Orlando City SC. The Crew was on the back foot for most of the match, but it wasn’t tactical changes setting the team back. Let’s dive in.
Game planning for RBNY’s style
The Red Bulls play a very distinctive style of play, emphasizing hard pressing and physicality to wear down their opponents. New York also prides itself on scoring the first goal of the match, putting the other team in a hole and crushing their spirits.
It was with that in mind that the head coach Caleb Porter came into this game and decided to counter that style not by changing the team’s entire scheme, but by slightly adjusting to deal with the Red Bulls’ style. The Black & Gold typically like to control the game by keeping possession, stringing together passes and making the opposing team chase the game.
Throughout much of this game, New York’s pressing gave Columbus fits because it made the home side rush into some unwarranted passes and turnovers. This was the case through the first 70 minutes of the match when the Red Bulls looked threatening from end to end.
When the Crew had success, it was when the team played quicker up the pitch with one-two combinations and secondary runs from midfielders. These chances often arose when forward Erik Hurtado got the ball into his feet and played it back to a midfielder who then sent a through ball past the stepping defense to a secondary runner.
To win this game, the Black & Gold needed to be able to be calm and play out of pressure without turning over the ball in dangerous areas, which they accomplished... sort of. For the greater part of the match, Columbus wasn’t able to compete with the intensity of the Red Bulls. This is something that the team will have to improve over the last two games of the regular season, as it’s the most intense time of the year.
Overloading one side of the pitch while maintaining width
Creating numerical advantages has been a concept that the Crew has used throughout the season. Porter likes to get his players in positions where they can press or possess with numbers and create favorable matchups. While this is an important part of the Black & Gold’s game plan, maintaining the formational width is also equally important.
When players on the outside stay near the touchline, it stretches the opposing defense and opens passing lanes for forwards to run through and exploit. Columbus figured out how to do both these things at the same time by utilizing the unique skillset of Pedro Santos.
Santos, a former winger, has made the transition to left back this season and has played really well. The Portugal native has been solid defensively, but he has also been a different attacking option for the Crew. Santos’ ability to get forward has been something that the Black & Gold have tried to call upon as much as possible.
In this particular game, Columbus found a balance between overloading a side and maintaining width through Santos. While the rest of the squad committed numbers to one side, Santos stayed wide on the other side of the pitch. The Crew committed up to six players to one side of the pitch, while Santos stretched the Red Bulls’ defense on the other side.
If the Black & Gold won the ball, the left back was available to receive a switch and attack from there. This kept the New York defense honest and gave Columbus options going forward if the team won the ball.
What needs to improve
The Crew’s problem does not have to deal entirely with tactics. There are certain things that Porter and the coaching staff can improve to better prepare the team, but the source of the Black & Gold’s problems has to do with intensity and urgency.
Columbus was on the back foot for most of the match while New York pressed in typical fashion. That intensity and drive were missing from the home side, who looked simply outplayed in the first 70 minutes of the match.
Things changed when Porter brought on Etienne, forward Jacen Russell-Rowe and fullback Mohamed Farsi. As soon as that trio stepped onto the pitch, the Crew was more dangerous and the intensity was upped.
Tactically, the Black & Gold need to be urged to move the ball quicker. Oftentimes, Columbus turns the ball over needlessly because the team takes too much time on the ball. The Crew has had success when swinging the ball and combining with quick passes and catching the defense on its heels. The problem is that the team has not been able to reach that gear often enough this season.
All in all, Columbus picked up a crucial three points at home to keep the team’s MLS Cup playoff hopes alive. But this group will need to bring the intensity from the end of the match to the entirety of these last two games to secure a postseason spot.