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Tactics Time: How to Clip the Crew

A win gets NYCFC a first-round bye. Can they get it done in Queens?

MLS: New York City FC at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

New York City FC could have wrapped up a first-round bye last week and made Sunday’s clash with the (at least for this season) Columbus Crew an afterthought, without any playoff implications. What could have been a celebratory occasion now becomes a teeth-grinding, do-or-die, season-defining moment.

In their last match, Jack Harrison was sent off early on for a questionable red card as the New England Revolution took the 3 points in a 2-1 loss that felt much more one-sided than the score indicated. For this ailing NYCFC squad, facing a playoff team in their next match isn’t the best medicine.

Not only was this weekend’s game moved to the unfamiliar confines of Citi Field in Flushing, Queens, but they also face a white-hot Crew side. Nothing short of a tactical masterclass from Patrick Vieira will be required if NYCFC want to go into the playoffs knowing that this crucial bye has been secured. Here are some ways they can pick the Crew apart:

  1. Line up like this

4-3-3: Johnson; Matarrita, Callens, Brillant, Struna; Herrera, Ring, Moralez; McNamara, Harrison, Villa

Up top, Rodney Wallace gets dropped from the starting XI. Currently on a five-month-long goal drought, Tommy McNamara gets the nod over him. Harrison’s red card from the New England match was rescinded, and his creativity is desperately needed.

Returning to the fold is Maxi Moralez, who missed the last game due to yellow card accumulation. He’ll slide right back into his attacking midfield role. Ring and Herrera once again make up the rest of the midfield.

Ben Sweat has had a fine season, but a healthy Ronald Matarrita should still be the first choice at left back. Sweat has gotten the starting nod in past weeks, but NYCFC’s recent lack of goals calls for the more attacking-minded Matarrita to reclaim his starting spot. Andraž Struna has played well enough to hold down the right back spot, as has the center back pairing of Alex Callens and Frederic Brillant.

2. Get the ball out of the middle, away from Federico Higuaín and Justin Meram

MLS: New York City FC at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Columbus’ offense is more centralized than any other attack in the league. The Crew hold the ball in the middle third of the pitch about 27% of the time, percentage points higher than 2nd place San Jose. Looming in the center of the pitch is Federico Higuaín, who can boast that he’s been one of the best creators in MLS literally since before NYCFC were born. With 9 goals and 7 assists, Higuaín has aged like a fine wine in his age-32 season.

The explosion of Justin Meram, who has contributed to 18 goals (13 goals, 5 assists), has proved essential for a team as heavily reliant on a varied attack as the Crew. By no means does their 4-2-3-1 formation anchor Meram to the left flank. The heat map from their last clash against Orlando show him and Higuaín dominating the center of the park.

Meram and Higuaín against Orlando

When Meram is forced out wide, he is half the player he is when he can play from a more centralized position. The 1-2 that he and Ola Kamara form when they both bring their shooting boots is a nightmare for any defense. Higuaín is the force setting up most of these goals. Keeping the ball out of the middle and forcing Meram out wide isn’t just important, it’s essential.

3. Let Jack Harrison take over

MLS: New York City FC at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

At a time when the offensively-minded NYCFC are finding goals hard to come by, only David Villa and the Englishman have consistently strung solid performances together. If the red card from last match had stood, NYCFC would have been deprived of a consistent starter and Harrison would have missed out on the opportunity to have a field day at the expense of a patchwork backline.

Earlier in the year, Gregg Berhalter’s side were conceding at an alarming rate, which could be attributed to an excessive amount of tinkering with the starting lineup. Their goals against have slowed with a more solid back four, but the Crew are still prone to untimely concession.

Strikers Bradley Wright-Phillips and Fredy Montero netted for Red Bulls and Vancouver, respectively, in their last few matches against Columbus. Both of these goals originated from a wing position. Jack Harrison has provided goal scoring, with goals in the 1-0 wins against Kansas City and Montreal. Against an improved, yet still shaky center back duo of Josh Williams and Jonathan Mensah, look for Harrison to kick start the NYCFC offense in one way or another.

4. Speed the game up and get out of your comfort zone

MLS: New York City FC at New England Revolution Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

The sustained funk that NYCFC find themselves inexorably mired in in the waning hours of the season is handicapping the Boys in Blue’s first-round bye aspirations. Even in this slump, however, Vieira and NYCFC have remained consistent in the way that they play. Perhaps Vieira took lessons from Gregg Berhalter.

Columbus found themselves in a similar situation earlier this season, when they failed to score more than once in eight games between May 21 and July 22. Berhalter trusted in his 4-2-3-1 formation and has since weathered the storm.

Both NYCFC and Columbus are strong offensive sides, but neither are “quick-strike” offenses. They prefer to play for possession and favor methodical buildups to goals rather than a hectic, damn-the-torpedoes style. While Columbus provides good evidence for not budging from what the squad is best at, desperate times in New York call for desperate measures.

Playing more up-tempo might be what finally gets NYCFC out of this months-long rut they’ve been stuck in. Allow Maxi Moralez to facilitate the fast, electric attack that he can run when he’s in good form. Don’t be tentative when going for goal. Give David Villa the green light to go for goal from basically anywhere.

If NYCFC don’t get their offense back on track, especially against playoff sides that can match them blow for blow, their stay in the playoffs may end up as short as last year.