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Tactics Time: How To Knock Off Columbus

The Crew broke NYCFC’s hearts last season. Can The Boys in Blue get revenge?

MLS: Eastern Conference Semifinal-Columbus Crew at New York City FC Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth in 2015, New York City FC actually had difficulty scoring goals save for David Villa and his magical feet.

Any time the Spaniard missed an extended period of time, NYCFC learned through excessive failure how poor their depth as a squad was. Seemingly endless promising possessions were ended by misguided attempts on goal by the likes of Tony Taylor, Javier Calle, and the legendary Adam Nemec, who, as we all know, is the greatest player in the history of soccer. Patrick Mullins was also as good as it got.

NYCFC’s 3-0 win over the Montreal Impact shows how good times have gotten since then. Young starlet Jesus Medina hit a thundering shot past Impact goalie Evan Bush, and energetic winger Jonathan Lewis bagged his first of the season. Ronald Matarrita’s sublime chip goal was the cherry on top of a dominant second half.

With Villa, Jo Inge Berget, and Ismael Tajorui-Shradi all questionable for Saturday’s match against the Columbus Crew, City’s attacking depth will have an even more strenuous test put in front of it. Despite offloading Ola Kamara (LA Galaxy) and Justin Meram (Orlando), head coach Gregg Berhalter still has one of the strongest attacks in MLS, spearheaded by DP Federico Higuain. Though they’ve stumbled of late, losing three of four, the Crew remain one of the toughest 90 minute tests in MLS.

What makes this match even more significant is the ability to put to bed the demons that have been dancing over NYCFC’s heads since last November’s playoff matches. The Alex Callens red card, the 4-1 loss on the road, the 2-0 win where they came tantalizingly close to pulling off the impossible at Yankee Stadium. With the chance to hit Columbus with a nice hefty counterpunch is there, it’s just up to Dome Torrent and NYCFC to take advantage.

Here’s how they can do that.

  1. Line Up Like This

4-2-2-2: Johnson; Sweat, Callens, Chanot, Tinnerholm; Ofori, Ring; Matarrita, Lewis; Moralez, Medina

Bench: Stuver, Ibeagha, Abdul-Salaam, McNamara, Awuah, Tajouri-Shradi, Berget

In their sluggish first half against Montreal, NYCFC came out in a 4-2-3-1 with Maxi Moralez as a false 9. The second half eruption was, in part, aided by the switch to a 4-2-2-2 look, with Moralez and Jesus Medina operating as traditional strikers. It makes sense to keep the same shape to take on the Crew

Jonathan Lewis and Ronald Matarrita both bagged goals in the last match, and deserve to start as wingers in this one. Ben Sweat fills the left-back spot, with the usual backline of Alex Callens, Maxime Chanot, and Anton Tinnerholm all back in place. Ebenezer Ofori and Alex Ring are manning midfield once again.

With Berget, Villa, and Tajouri-Shradi all not 100%, starting them would seem illogical in the marathon that is the MLS season. Keeping at least two of them on the bench in case a goal is needed late wouldn’t be the worst idea. Villa should take this game off, as he’s too important to risk trudging out while injured and risking an aggravation of said injury.

Sebastien Ibeagha, who has now turned the second center back spot into a battle between himself and Chanot, will likely see time as a sub. Though Tommy McNamara started against Montreal, he’s better off on the bench, as the attack looked more lively with Lewis. The seldom used Saad Abdul-Salaam may get a chance to prove himself to Torrent in this one.

2. It’s all about stopping Gyasi Zardes. Be mindful of his rare pace for a #9.

MLS: Columbus Crew at Los Angeles Galaxy Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Gregg Berhalter’s offensive system has either revitalized or jump-started the career of every striker he’s inserted into it. After the loss of Kamara and Meram, he was left without a true striker. Enter former LA Galaxy and USMNT winger Gyasi Zardes. Extremely pacy and talented, Zardes never seemed to put it all together for club or country, as glimpses of potential and sheer brilliance would be mired by weeks of poor play and inconsistency.

The move to striker has seen Zardes bag 11 goals, good for a tie for second in MLS (Josef Martinez has 18 to lead everyone). The aforementioned Higuain is still a midfield metronome at the age of 33, and Portugese DP Pedro Santos can be extremely problematic if left alone in one-on-one situations. However, with just two goals from open play between them (Higuain has 3 penalties), they’re mostly facilitating ways to get the ball to Zardes. In fact, no one except Zardes has more than one goal from open play for the Crew.

His pace for a striker is unique and a deadly weapon, but stopping Zardes and stopping the Crew go hand in hand. Alex Ring and the center backs have a long night ahead of them.

3. Teams with great strikers succeed against Columbus’ spread-out defense. Moralez and Medina need to perform.

MLS: New York City FC at Chicago Fire Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Columbus’ 4-2-3-1 is a striker’s dream. Ironically enough, that statement works just as well for strikers facing Columbus. The Crew’s normally stern defense has lost them three of four, including two whippings at the hands of both Los Angeles squads by a combined score of 6-0.

Against Los Angleles FC, who were without superstar winger Carlos Vela, new arrival Adama Diomande — who has 9 goals in 7 MLS matches — bagged one early in a 2-0 win. LA Galaxy saw what their neighbors did and put even more of beat down on Columbus, winning 4-0. Kamara haunted his old team with a goal early before they got “Zlataned” in the second half as an Ibrahimovic penalty made it 2-0. Romain Alessandrini, who played striker in their last match, grabbed two goals as a sub.

Jonathan Mensah and Gaston Sauro, Columbus’ usual centerback pairing, are a solid duo, as is 19-year-old DP Milton Valenzuela. However, their issues lie in midfield. The pairing of Artur and Will Trapp get into the bad habit of encroaching too far forward. Once they’re past the two midfielders, quality forwards like Zlatan and Alessandrini will have no issues with one-on-one challenges from the Crew’s center backs. On NYCFC’s contained pitch, this could be even more problematic.

The pair of Moralez and Medina could be in line for a couple goals if they exploit the hole in midfield. Both have the pace and skill to run by or around Mensah and Sauro. If Columbus decides to get extra-defensive and sit back, that could spell trouble for the out-of-position forwards the Boy in Blue are sending out.

4. Columbus is a well-coached side that still plays like the Eastern Conference Finalist of 2017. Remember those playoff games.

MLS: Eastern Conference Semifinal-Columbus Crew at New York City FC Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

Despite a run of poor form, Gregg Berhalter can still coach, as NYCFC got a taste of in their playoff matchups. If NYCFC slips up like they did in Leg 1, the Crew will pounce. Getting into disciplinary trouble or making defensive errors is simply chumming the waters for the sharks that are Columbus’ attackers. An early goal could be a signal to compress and get ultra-defensive. That maneuver in Leg 2 drove what proved to be the final nail into NYCFC’s coffin.

This is as much a test for Torrent as it is for NYCFC at large. His first four matches have been impressive; no one is contesting that. However, they’ve come up against the following:

  • Veljko Paunovic, a wildly inconsistent, but currently red-hot manager (loss)
  • Chris Armas, who was managing his first professional game
  • Greg Vanney, who is faced with crushing injuries and minimal depth
  • Remi Garde, who was almost fired midseason

If Torrent can hold his own against Berhalter and avoid the tactical mistakes that doomed Patrick Vieira and his players, that should put MLS on notice.