One point and 107 miles separate the Columbus Crew and FC Cincinnati. On Saturday, the Crew travel to TQL Stadium to take on Cincinnati.
The Black & Gold hover just above the MLS Cup playoff line and FC Cincy is just below the line. Cincinnati is on track for the team’s best ever season, and have sights set on a first ever playoff appearance, while Columbus looks to get back to the MLS Cup-winning level of 2020. The stakes have never been higher for any Hell is Real Derby before.
Let’s take a look at this contest.
Cincinnati at a glance:
Record: 8-8-10 34 pts (9th in the East)
League Form: T-T-W-T-T
Leading Scorer: Brandon Vazquez (15)
Assist Leader: Luciano Acosta (14)
Player to Watch: Luciano Acosta
Acosta leads MLS with 14 assists and is the catalyst for most of what is good for Cincinnati. The Argentine playmaker terrorized Columbus in his two previous matches in 2021. Fortunately for the Crew, Acosta had to miss the last Hell is Real Derby due to an extended suspension but unfortunately is back for this game.
The fiery No. 10 is a good dribbler and looks to create space on the ball. Unlike the Crew’s Lucas Zelarayan, Acosta’s first instinct is not to shoot but to make a final pass, reflected in his 14 assists. Acosta is playing with great chemistry and understands where his teammates will be. With the emergence of forwards Brenner and Brandon Vazquez, Acosta has had more space to operate as those two occupy the central defenders.
How FC Cincinnati play:
Cincinnati has played a consistent 3-5-2 or 5-3-2 throughout head coach Pat Noonan’s first year in charge. With Brenner finally coming good on his transfer price and Vazquez’s ascension into the United States Men’s National Tea, striker conversations, this formation has created 43 goals this year.
The attacking trio of Brenner, Vazquez and Acosta is a handful for any team. Vazquez looks to get in behind the defense, giving Cincinnati a player that will stretch the field while Brenner plays to receive the ball in the penalty box. The Brazilian scores goals and puts the ball out of the goalkeepers’ reach.
The Crew must keep a close eye on Brenner in the 18-yard box. Due to how much attention the two forwards get, Acosta is often not as well accounted for, giving him space to drift to the peripheral to receive the ball and then drive into the danger zone.
The real difficulty for FC Cincy has been defensive stability, allowing 46 goals this season, fifth worst in MLS. Cincinnati recently aquired Matt Miazga from Chelsea to help in this capacity. The center back trio of Miazga, Geoff Cameron and Nick Hagglund had their best game of the season against the New York Red Bulls, winning almost every duel and tackle.
A major weakness in playing three center backs is that teams often can find plenty of room to operate on the flanks, and that is no exception for Cincinnati. If the wide center backs can stay home to defend crosses, the home side will see improvement in their defensive performances.
A significant note to this game is the suspension of Obinna Nwobodo, a Designated Player defensive midfielder. He will likely be replaced by Yuya Kubo who is more attack-minded.
How the Crew can win:
Unlike the previous game against Atlanta United, the Black & Gold must bring passion and energy to this match. Head coach Caleb Porter has talked about how this has been a game circled in previous matches. With the playoff implications of this match, this fixture should be triple-circled.
Midfielder Artur will miss this match with yellow card accumulation and left back Pedro Santos is out with a hamstring strain. In place of Artur, Columbus will likely slot in midfielder Aidan Morris. With Nwobodo missing this game, the midfield is Morris’ to run as the only truly defensive midfielder on the pitch. With his range and tackling ability Morris should disrupt the attack of Cincinnati and give the Crew an advantage in possession.
Left back Will Sands impressed with his desire on the attack when he fought through an Atlanta defender to play the cross in for striker Cucho Hernandez’s second goal of the last game. Fighting for second balls and pressuring the ball carrier should not be an issue in the match with the addition of Morris and Sands.
Missing Santos on the wings is unfortunate for Black & Gold as Cincinnati allow space on the flanks for wingers due to the three center back defensive shape. Winger Luis Diaz will need to continue in his impressive performances to take advantage of the space allowed to him. Diaz and fellow wingers Derrick Etienne or Kevin Molino will need to create space for Hernandez and Zelarayan in the middle by forcing the center backs to make decisions that pull them out of position. Diaz and Etienne can do this with their speed and running directly at defenses, forcing the center backs to follow them.
Defensively, Columbus will have everyone needed on the pitch to lock down the talented attacking trio of Cincinnati, but will need to improve set piece defending which has been a consistent worry. Improved set piece defending and an in-form Room should see the Crew weather the storm Cincinnati will create as they try and come from behind and chase the game late.