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Crew tactical review: An up and down game in Toronto

The Black & Gold had a so-so performance in 2023’s first edition of the Trillium Cup but came away with a point.

MLS: D.C. United at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Columbus Crew was back on the road this weekend, taking on Toronto FC at BMO Field. The Crew got a better result than the first road game of the year but wasn’t able to pull out a win, settling for a 1-1 draw with the Trillium Cup rivals. The Black & Gold had to fight back in the game after going down 1-0 in the first half, but a Jimmy Medranda goal in the 75th minute secured a point for Columbus.

It was a back-and-forth game for the Crew who controlled the game in the first 15 minutes but had stretches where the team was on the back foot. Tactically, there were some high and low points that contributed to the game’s outcome. Let’s dive in.

The good

It’s always better to start off with the good first. The Black & Gold got a road point early in the season against an Eastern Conference rival after going down a goal. While the team didn’t play extraordinarily well throughout, there were some stretches in which Columbus looked dangerous and threatening.

In the opening 15 minutes of the match, the Crew had a bulk of the possession and generated some decent chances that just lacked a killer finishing touch. One of the things that worked in that opening phase of the game was the Black & Gold’s secondary runners in attack.

Forward Cucho Hernandez hasn’t gotten on the scoresheet yet this season, but he’s been creating opportunities for others to get into scoring positions based on his positioning. In the 14th minute, Hernandez had a sequence where he dropped into midfield near the right wing and received a pass from midfielder Darlington Nagbe. Since a defender was on his back, Hernandez played a quick slip pass to streaking wing back Mohamed Farsi who then played a pass a little bit out of the reach of attacking midfielder Alexandru Matan.

Since Hernandez dropped deeper, he pulled a Toronto defender with him and opened up space in behind for Farsi and Matan to run intoo. Since that defender was drawn out, TFC had to shift over to cover that space, leaving the middle of the field wide open. If Farsi had connected with Matan, the midfielder would have had a clear path to goal with only an aging Michael Bradley on his heels.

The other good thing head coach Wilfried Nancy did was push Nagbe higher up the pitch. Often in the first half, Nagbe gained ground simply by dropping his shoulder and waltzing through the defense. This is something Crew fans have wanted to see for a while and will hope it continues because an offensively aggressive Nagbe makes the Black & Gold that much harder to defend.

The bad

Columbus did not adapt quickly enough to the changes Toronto made in the game. In the first 15 minutes, the Crew dominated, keeping the ball and putting the home side under pressure. That was until TFC changed the team’s press.

While Toronto didn’t start out pressing very high, but with the Black & Gold’s high rate of possession, the Reds switched to a more man-to-man press that made life very difficult for the away side. TFC took away Columbus’ ability to break lines by man marking midfielder Aidan Morris and Nagbe and sending the front line to press up the Crew’s defense. This led to bad passes, turnovers and chances for the Canadian side.

The gap between the midfield and attack was too big for the Crew against Toronto

The Black & Gold had two options to combat this: go long and get players up top to hold up the ball or have attackers drop deeper and help play out. Going long didn’t work out very well because Hernandez isn’t a true hold-up forward and Columbus didn’t drop the attackers back, so the Crew had a massive gap between the midfield and from three that was exploited by Toronto.

The lack of adjustment by Nancy is something that is to be expected early in the season. The team has a new coach and new players, but this is an adjustment that Nancy just missed.

The other downside of this game was the Black & Gold’s wing back play. In this young season, Farsi has shined and shown he can play with the first team and be a regular contributor at right wing back. The other wing back spot, however, is up for grabs.

The absence of Will Sands on left has been a loss so far for Columbus after he left the first match of the year with an injury at halftime. Medranda getting back to full fitness will be a big upgrade for the Crew. But going forward, it’s hard to see where Yaw Yeboah and Luis Diaz, both natural wingers, fit with how Nancy wants to play. Neither player has demonstrated the versatility to be able to defend and attack, needs for wing backs.

The goal

It’s always fun to watch such a simple pattern of play make such an impact on the professional level. Medranda’s 75th minute equalizer was the result of one of the oldest soccer patterns in the book: the up, back and through.

The ball started with Medranda who played a split ball to Matan. The midfielder then dropped a pass back to Morris because he had a defender on his back and the young American played the ball over the top perfectly for Medranda to strike.

The beauty of this pattern is it can work at all levels of soccer. Medranda continuing his run was the key because Matan dragged his defender out to open up space for the wing back to get in behind. It was also a different type of run from a wing back, attacking more centrally than only staying near the touchline.

It’s something small that led to the goal, but it’s proof that the patterns that are practiced on the training ground can be engrained in the brains of these players to lead to success.