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Crew tactical review: How the Black & Gold got a point away from home

It was an important road point for the Crew. How did it happen tactically?

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at New York Red Bulls Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The Columbus Crew played to a 1-1 draw on Sunday versus a competitive New York Red Bulls side. The game was deadlocked at 0-0 until the 84th minute when a Red Bulls’ corner kick deflected off of multiple players before finding the back of the net. New York appeared to have secured all three points until a Darlington Nagbe toe-poke leveled the game in the fifth minute of stoppage time, essentially the last kick of the game.

This result keeps the Crew undefeated on the season and sitting in second place in the Eastern Conference after a 2-0-2 start to the year. This game, however, was different from the others in the way Columbus set up tactically. Let’s take a look.

The Black & Gold’s relaxed approach

This was a surprising change in watching the game. Typically, the Crew comes out the gates with long spells of possession and lots of passes in an attempt to opponent out. This time, however, Columbus decided to give the Red Bulls the baton and allowed the home side to control the game. This not only put pressure on New York to figure out the team’s attack, but it also took away the Red Bulls’ best goalscoring option, the press.

New York is well known for its high, aggressive style of pressing. This allows the team to force its opponent to turn the ball over in dangerous areas and score easy goals off of transition. This did not match up well with the Black & Gold highly possessive and slow-building attacking play. So, head coach Caleb Porter decided to switch to a more direct approach and tried to exploit RBNY on the long ball. If that wasn’t working, it was not a big deal because then the Red Bulls wouldn’t have the opportunity to win the ball deep in the Black & Gold’s territory and have an easy goalscoring chance.

Porter’s hope was to defend well, send balls deep into New York’s half and possibly snatch a goal somewhere along the way.

Exposing the three-back system

The Red Bulls’ lineup is very telling of their system. Employing a 3-4-2-1 formation gives RBNY the opportunity to get high up the field and press using the six players they have in midfield. This sometimes leaves New York vulnerable though, with three defenders left to clean up the mess if the midfield breaks down.

Columbus’ coaching staff went into this game with a plan of attack, hoping to exploit the narrowness of the Red Bulls’ three-defender system. The key was to get as wide as possible, as quickly as possible. This meant getting the ball to wingers Derrick Etienne Jr. or Yaw Yeboah in transition as often as possible. While the Crew soaked up pressure on the defensive end, Yeboah and Etienne were always ready to break if the Black & Gold were to win the ball.

While the speed advantage was clear between the two wingers and the lumbering center backs, the hard part was getting them the ball. Long balls from the back played by defenders or the dual defensive midfielders could be read easily by those opposing center backs and won in the air. This was the case a few times, but Columbus did have its share of opportunities on the break. Even if a goal didn’t result directly from this tactical switch, it created dangerous chances for the Crew to capitalize.

The Berry and Zardes conversation

Fans may be tired of hearing the speculation around forwards Miguel Berry and Gyasi Zardes. Who will start? Who’s the better fit? Will one shine while the other is relegated to the bench?

The answer to all these questions is, who cares? It is never a problem to have two players from the same position group challenging each other to get better and fighting for minutes, especially when it is not affecting the team chemistry or morale.

Forget all the media buzz and look at what each of them offered in this game. Berry disappeared for much of the first half of the match. To be fair, the system was not set up for him to be touching the ball every possession, but there were still opportunities where he could drop into midfield to help the attack but remained at midfield. Again, this is not to disparage Berry, but there was more he could have done to help the team out while he was on the field.

After Gyasi Zardes came on in the second half, the striker position was more involved. Zardes did miss a sitter in front of a wide-open goal, but at least he was in an advantageous goal-scoring position. Zardes was also integral in the game-tying goal, setting up winger Luis Diaz to run down the wing and then drawing the defender away from Matan and Nagbe in the penalty box allowing Nagbe to tie the game.

Fans do not need to choose sides and there should be animosity over which player starts, but one outperformed the other in the game on Sunday. This could be due to tactical switch, fresh legs or a variety of other factors, but it made a difference in the match that was integral for the Crew securing a tie.

In the end though, two top strikers who can make a difference in a game is better than one.