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Crew tactical review: Halftime changes help Black & Gold win

A thrilling comeback was sparked by the tactical and formational changes by head coach Caleb Porter at halftime.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Chicago Fire Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports

The Columbus Crew pulled off a dramatic come-from-behind victory in the Windy City Saturday night with a 3-2 win against the Chicago Fire. After conceding two goals in the first half, the Black & Gold stormed back with a brace from winger Derrick Etienne Jr. and the late winner from new signing Cucho Hernandez.

Columbus captured a much-needed three road points that will help the Crew to return to the MLS Cup playoffs. It was second half tactical adjustments by Caleb Porter that flipped the game on its head to give the Black & Gold the advantage they need to spark a comeback and secure the win.

Let’s dive in to what Porter did to get the win in the second half.

Pushing wing backs higher

This was an emphasis in practice this week for Columbus. With this relatively new three-center-back formation, Porter wants wing backs Pedro Santos and Steven Moreira to get higher up the pitch to provide another attacking threat for the Crew.

Moreira and Santos have been doing this pretty regularly, the caveat is that Porter wants them both to get high up at the same time. The Black & Gold feel comfortable with their experienced center backs holding the line defensively, so for a Columbus team that has struggled to score goals, Porter is taking a calculated risk by throwing more men into the attack.

Not only does this get more bodies forward for the Crew but it also allows the team to have more width, which accomplishes two main things. Firstly, it frees up some space in the middle for the midfielders to create and run at the defense. This is personally catered towards Lucas Zelarayan and Darlington Nagbe. The more space these two have, the more dangerous with the ball they can be. Secondly, it gives the Black & Gold more crossing and switching options. Santos has proved he can whip in a mean ball and Moreira has three assists on the year.

Porter wants his most dynamic attacking playmakers to be working in harmony higher up the pitch where they can make an impact. This is something to watch out for in the coming weeks, especially as Hernandez starts to play more minutes and gain more chemistry with the rest of the squad.

Quicker tempo

A huge difference from the first half of this game to the second half was the way Columbus used the team’s possessions. The first half was, to be blunt, a train wreck. The Crew couldn’t move the ball without turning it over, the defense was in a daze, no one was energetic and positive and the team went to the locker room down two goals and looking hopelessly out of the match. The tempo was not where it needed to be. When positive splits or line-breaking balls were available, the Black & Gold were lackadaisical and instead decided to pass the ball around the back or into a marked player, only for it to be stolen and turned into a counter attack.

After halftime, this quickly changed. From the whistle, Columbus pushed more men forward and combined much better than in the first half. There were significantly fewer square or backward passes. Granted, the Chicago Fire press was immense in the first half, and scaled it back in the second half, but that proved to be costly.

Porter is continually urging his players to attack the opposition as much as they can to prevent them from getting set up. If a team can go at the opponent and catch them off guard quickly, it is much better than waiting for them to be ready for you. That’s why on both of Etienne’s goals on the night, the Crew capitalized off of Chicago not paying attention on restarts. Those quick restarts put the defense on its heels and gave the Black & Gold the opening they needed to get back in the game. Columbus needs to keep up this tempo in the coming games to keep building on these positive results.

Second half formational changes

Saturday’s match was a chess match between Porter and Fire head coach Ezra Hendrickson. Hendrickson bested Porter in the first 45 minutes by pushing his press high to keep the Crew in the team’s own half.

The brilliance of soccer though, is that games are 90 minutes, not 45. Porter later responded after halftime by switching to a 4-2-3-1 formation and subbing in wingers Etienne and Luis Diaz to replace Jalil Anibaba and Sean Zawadzki. Porter opted to go for speed down the wings and then later decided to go for more speed up top by switching Hernandez for Jacen Russell-Rowe.

With Hernandez on the field, Zelarayan was able to roam free, finding pockets of space where he thought he could get the ball and make an impact. With the wingers drawing Chicago’s attention out wide, Zelarayan had more space to turn and play make all over the field.

Santos and Moreira, under Porter’s instruction to get higher up the field, overlapped the wingers, providing more width and stretching the defense. This gave Etienne and Diaz the opportunity to pinch in toward the center of the field and make diagonal runs for Zelarayan, which is exactly what happened on Etienne’s first goal.

Because the Black & Gold have played many different formations over the past few months, Porter now has an ace up his sleeve. His team is now smart enough and trained enough to be able to switch into any of the formations used. This could prove valuable down the stretch, as it did on Saturday night.