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Crew tactical review: The Black & Gold get the result desired at Real Salt Lake

Without several key players, the Black & Gold did what they had to in order to return to Columbus with a point.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Real Salt Lake Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday’s late-night game between the Columbus Crew and Real Salt Lake as a depleted Black & Gold side went on the road and were happy to return home with a point. Salt Lake sits in second place in Major League Soccer’s Western Conference, so a result on the road, in a place where Real had only dropped points once this year prior, for Columbus feels like a victory.

With a heavily rotated squad due to injuries, head coach Caleb Porter opted for a more conservative, but effective approach when setting up his team tactically against RSL. Let’s dive into the tactical side of the game and what saw the Crew get the draw.

Sitting back

Many times these series of tactical reviews have put an emphasis on the way the Crew presses and the nuances of the press depending on the game. While there was some pressing done by the Black & Gold in Sandy, Utah, it was the decision to sit back that made the game interesting for Columbus.

Porter was faced with a mountain of a task going into this matchday with an away game, a good opponent and an injury-ridden squad to deal with. All these factors played into Porter’s decision to sit back and try to either steal a 1-0 win or battle for a 0-0 tie.

While fans may have an issue with this, the fact is that the Crew needs to pick up points whenever the team can, and when facing a very good team on the road with a squad that is far from the preferred starting 11, you have to work with what you have and adjust the goals for the game.

In this instance, without multiple key starters and relying on plenty of youth, the Crew was content at times to just let RSL possess the ball, but at moments would try to get forward and win the ball back. Most of the time the Black & Gold sat eight or nine players behind the ball, usually with forward Miguel Berry as the lone attacker to run down long balls.

All in all, the choice worked, and Columbus returned home with a hard-earned point.

So many set pieces

The Crew looking to earn fouls and free kicks is something fans don’t often see when Lucas Zelarayan is not on the field. The Black & Gold again had to accept the reality of the game, and Porter figured that the best chance for Columbus to score would come off of set pieces.

Throw-ins, free kicks and corners were a point of emphasis for the Crew as the visitors looked for a goal. On corners, the Black & Gold crowded the opposing goalkeeper, hoping to cause mayhem that would end up with the ball in the back of the net. With all the bodies flying around, the goalkeeper is more prone to make a mistake with multiple players ready to pounce. Salt Lake committing 16 fouls also helped Columbus gain some dangerous opportunities. But unfortunately for the Crew, the service was just not there for a player to make the home team pay.

A 0-0 result is never a fun score line from the fans’ perspective, but the Black & Gold will take the road point.

The return of the swing player

Porter hasn’t deliberately used a swing player consistently in quite some time, but Homegrown rookie Sean Zawadzki filled in the position very comfortably against Real.

There are two reasons for the implementation of the swing player in central midfield against RSL. Firstly, the swing player provides better help in possessing the ball and transitioning into the attack. With Zawadzki dropping between center backs Jonathan Mensah and Milos Degenek, it allowed both outside backs to get higher up the field, while also creating channels for fellow central midfielders Darlington Nagbe and Aidan Morris to exploit. If the RSL midfielders were to cheat towards the outside to cut off the outside backs from receiving the ball, Zawadzki could just pass to Nagbe or Morris. On the other hand, if the RSL midfielders decided to stay more central, it allows Zawadzki to get the ball out wide and into space.

Secondly, this tactic provided defensive cover in case of a turnover in transition. If Columbus tryied to build out of the defensive half but gave away a bad pass, there was already extra support from Zawadzki because he was sitting so deep. He also is quicker than Mensah and Degenek, so he can track down 50/50 balls more effectively.

This is something the Crew can likely build on heading into a midweek clash at Toronto FC.