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Crew tactical review: Caleb Porter gets it right vs. Vancouver Whitecaps

How did the Crew find success against Vancouver to kick off the MLS season?

Sam Fahmi - Massive Report

The Columbus Crew earned an impressive 4-0 win against the Vancouver Whitecaps this past Saturday on the first weekend of Major League Soccer action to start the 2022 season out extremely strong. The Black & Gold were on top of the Whitecaps right from the kickoff before the breakthrough came in the eighth minute courtesy of forward Miguel Berry. After that the home side never looked back, adding three more goals before the final double whistles of the afternoon.

It was a dominant performance overall, largely due to the tactics employed by head coach Caleb Porter. Here are three takeaways about Porter’s opening day tactical setup that helped the Crew to a comfortable victory.

Overloading one side of the field to free up wingers

This idea was a huge part of the game Saturday. Porter expressed in preseason through signings that he wanted more production out of his wingers. Last season, the goals and assist total were very low from wingers — just four from the position from open play — so Columbus signed Yaw Yeboah to reinforce the depth at the position.

Porter also adjusted his team tactically to free up his wingers and put them in scoring positions. The best example of this was Derrick Etienne Jr.’s goal in the 25th minute to put the Crew up 2-0. The Black & Gold got the ball to Yaw Yeboah on the right wing and, at that moment, shifted attacking midfielder Lucas Zelarayan, central midfielders Nagbe and Artur, and even left back Pedro Santos toward the ball while Berry ran through the defense to pull the opposing defender away from the left flank. (Read more about that goal’s set up here.) The ball was then switched to Etienne who was left alone on the left side of the attack for an easy opening to his season’s goal account.

Dropping Nagbe or Artur into defense to free up Fullbacks

This is a classic part of Porter’s system, but it has evolved in his time with the Black & Gold. Last season, the Crew typically dropped a defensive midfielder to play between to center backs so Columbus could keep possession and switch the play easier. On Saturday, with either Nagbe or Artur dropping in as a de facto third center back, Santos and right back Steven Moreira can go higher up the pitch and the Crew’s formation can evolve from its normal 4-2-3-1 to a 3-4-3.

This is a more direct attacking approach and give Santos and Moreira the opportunity to create in midfield. This also pushes wingers Etienne and Yeboah higher up the field, looking to get them in more goal-scoring areas.

The Crew’s more normal setup.
How the Crew’s shape looks when the fullbacks push higher and one of the central midfielders drops into defense.

Miguel Berry getting the starting nod

This is not so much a tactical move, but it made a difference in the game. Berry was on fire near the end of last season, so out of respect for his play, Porter decided to give him the nod over Gyasi Zardes. This could be just because of Berry’s good run of form at the end of last year or because Zardes missed bits of the preseason, but the choice seemed to pay off.

Berry opened the scoring in the eighth minute but that wasn’t the brightest spot of his play. His passing was sublime. While he only attempted nine passes in the match, he completed eight of them. The combinations between him, Zelarayan, Etienne and Yeboah looked beautiful and created loads of attacking chances for the Black & Gold.

The nagging question now is who is the Crew’s starting striker going forward? Will we see Zardes return or did Berry take his sport? Or will Porter find a way to incorporate the pair into the same starting 11? The answer is probably somewhere in the middle, but Berry showed his value and why Porter got that decision right as well on Saturday.