Merry Crewsmas to you all! The Columbus Crew is set to begin the team’s 2022 MLS campaign Saturday at home against the Vancouver Whitecaps. Both teams enter this match after a very short offseason in an effort to accommodate the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
It has been an exciting offseason for Columbus, who made quite a few additions and subtractions to the squad. The Crew has added a few notable players, including Australian center back Milos Degenek, Yaw Yeboah on the wing and James Igbekeme in central midfield. In addition, Black & Gold fans have seen the return of both Aidan Morris and Artur from injury.
But what about Columbus’ season-opening opponet?
Vancouver Whitecaps at a Glance:
2021 Record: 12-13-9, 49 points (6th in the West)
2021 Leading Scorer: Brian White (12)
2021 Assist Leader: Brian White (6)
Player to Watch: Ryan Gauld
The “Scottish Messi” will make his way to Columbus for the first time in his career on Saturday. Gauld was a revelation for the Whitecaps in July of last year, tallying four goals and five assists and leading a resurgent Vancouver side to the MLS Cup playoffs. Gauld was one of the most underrated signings in MLS last season and looks poised to continue to galvanize Vancouver in his first full year with the club.
Usually playing as an attacking central midfielder, Gauld quickly made a name for himself thanks to his dribbling ability and his passing in the final third. Gauld linked up often with striker Brian White to cause panic in backlines all across the Western Conference. The midfielder excels in tight spaces and has the ability to shimmy past multiple defenders.
How Vancouver plays:
It is Week 1 in the MLS, so it’s impossible to say for certain how a team will play. However, based off of their success last season under then-interim, now permanent, head coach Vanny Sartini, it’s unlikely there will be huge tactical changes from the Whitecaps in 2022.
Under Sartini, Vancouver primarily uses a 3-5-2 formation that focused on being solid defensively and quickly transitioning into the attack whenever possible. The Whitecaps also look to apply pressure high up the field defensively against teams that look to maintain a lot of possession (like the Crew) in an effort to disrupt rhythm.
When Vancouver does win the ball back, the team’s first choice is to quickly go forward and catch the opponent out of position. If that’s not possible, the Whitecaps typically look to keep the ball and move it side to side as much as possible in an effort to create gaps in the opponent's backline. These gaps usually allow players like Gauld, White and Cristian Dajome room to operate. Expect to see a concerted defensive effort from Vancouver with an emphasis on counter attacking against the Black & Gold on Saturday.
How the Crew can win:
The recipe for a Columbus victory hasn’t changed much under head coach Caleb Porter during his tenure. Porter’s well-defined tactical system usually holds a lot of emphasis on the same principles, game in and game out. That being said, each opponent poses unique challenges and areas that the Black & Gold need to be focused on in order to be successful.
It has been well documented by media around the league and Porter himself how slow the Crew played in possession last year. This led to Columbus registering only 676 touches inside the opponent's penalty area. While this may seem like a lot, it was third lowest in the league in 2021.
When the Black & Gold moves the ball slowly, especially in the final third, it makes them easier to defend and more importantly, makes it easy for opponents to defend the penalty area. Thus, there should be a huge emphasis on the Crew’s speed of play in this match and 2022 in general.
Columbus will need to make quick decisions when passing the ball, coupled with smart off-ball movements to shift opposing defenders. Not only will this lead to more dangerous attacking opportunities, but it will also disrupt the way that Vancouver likes to play. The Black & Gold looked more lively on the ball in the preseason and hopefully this will translate to lively attacking play for Columbus on Saturday.
Another key area for the Crew is maintaining good defensive shape when in possession of the ball. While this may seem counterintuitive, it is vital for the Black & Gold's success. As mentioned, the Whitecaps look to attack as quickly and directly as possible when they win the ball back. If Columbus players move irresponsibly into attacking positions, it could prove costly at the other end. Crew fans will remember the struggles they faced in defensive transition in 2021 and should be expecting to see vast improvements in this area in 2022.
Lastly, the Black & Gold need to be focused and clinical in front of the goal. Seemingly obvious, but it will be important for Columbus to take chances well on Saturday. Not only will this allow the team to score more goals, but it will also allow for control of the game and force the Whitecaps to adjust their game plan in order to try and take points from the Crew.
Too often last year, Columbus let chances in front of goal slip and paid the price later on. The Black & Gold created chances in the preseason but struggled at times to finish. If the Crew is lethal in front of goal, it will likely lead to three points on Saturday and beyond.