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Tactics Time: How To Bounce Back Against Columbus

With a deplete midfield, can NYCFC survive Gyasi Zardes and Columbus?

MLS: Columbus Crew at New York City FC Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

New York City FC have been blessed with some excellent depth this season. Though both Patrick Vieira and Dome Torrent have been somewhat reluctant to change the shape or members of their starting XI, their ability to make some key late-game subs has kept NYCFC in the thick of the Supporter’s Shield race.

This weekend, against another playoff team, we will really see just how deep NYCFC are.

Following the pulse-pounding 1-1 draw against the New York Red Bulls at Yankee Stadium, NYCFC will enter a period wherein several key starters will be missing. Jesus Medina, Alex Callens and Jo Inge Berget are both banged up with minor injuries, while Ebenezer Ofori will miss this tussle withe Columbus due to a red card suspension. His suspected backup, Eloi Amagat, was also sent off after 40 minutes.

Of all the teams to be short in the middle against in MLS, Gregg Berhalter and Columbus Crew SC are a particularly dangerous one. After a period of some instability, NYCFC need to recover against the uber-talented Crew should they want to stop Red Bulls and Atlanta United from pulling away.

Here’s how to do just that.

  1. Line Up Like This

4-2-3-1: Johnson, Sweat, Chanot, Ibeagha, Tinnerholm; McNamara, Ring; Tajouri-Shradi, Moralez, Lewis, Villa

Bench: Stuver, Matarrita, Callens, Scally, Awuah, Castellanos, Wallace

The most obvious change is in midfield. Alex Ring once again slides into his familiar spot in central midfield, but Tommy McNamara starts opposite him. Kwame Awuah got some playing time during their last tilt with Columbus, but Torrent’s hesitancy to start some of the younger Boys in Blue will likely see Awuah make a substitute appearance in place of McNamara.

The back line is looking especially thin. Alex Callens is questionable with a knee injury. If he is fit, he should be only available as a sub, as risking another 90 minute performance out of him could cause more virulent damage to one of NYCFC’s core pieces. Sebastien Ibeagha and Maxime Chanot should both be in the starting lineup. Ben Sweat and Anton Tinnerholm — pillars of consistency in a season where NYCFC have been as helter-skelter as ever — are the fullbacks once more.

With no Medina or Berget, this could finally be the opportunity for Jonathan Lewis to start. The only obstacle to this will be Valentin Castellanos. “Taty” has been recovering from a minor injury, and Torrent has shown to prefer the young Argentinian over Lewis in his short time stateside. David Villa and the now undroppable Ismael Tajouri-Shradi should once again reclaim starting spots, but Torrent’s decision of who goes at right wing could make or break this game.

2. All movement flows through Federico Higuain. Stopping him prevents Gyasi Zardes from getting chances.

MLS: Houston Dynamo at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Columbus’ system is predicated on striker Gyasi Zardes being on the ball as little as possible and getting set up for quality chances by a creative attacking midfielder. NYCFC were able to clamp down on Higuain in the last match, forcing the ball to Pedro Santos on the wing. While freakishly fast, Santos is not the distributor Higuain is. The tight dimensions of Yankee Stadium likely helped as well.

At the more open MAPFRE Stadium, and with a home crowd behind him, Higuain will likely be on the ball more. Man-marking him with Kwame Awuah worked well in the last 25 minutes of the last meeting. Can either Alex Ring or Tommy McNamara be used in that role? It makes tactical sense, but McNamara isn’t a great defensive player and using Ring in that capacity would eliminate his incredible range in the defensive midfield, as he will be shackled to Higuain. Finding a way to keep Ring involved in defense and controlling Higuain will be a true test of Torrent’s managerial talent.

3. Play up-tempo and constantly push the ball forward. The less time the ball stays in the central midfield, the better

MLS: New York City FC at Orlando City SC Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Tommy McNamara is not far removed from being a key cog in the well-oiled NYCFC machines of yesteryear, his signature curling, top of the 18-yard box shots baffling a many of keepers. Now, McNamara looks slow and constantly out of position. Likely this is due to him being deployed more centrally than in years past. He’ll likely be there once again against the Crew. With Artur and Wil Trapp forming a deadly partnership in Columbus’ midfield, the pair will be licking their collective chops looking at this depleted squad.

Width and pace will be key to this one. The fullbacks, in particular Anton Tinnerholm, absolutely tore up Harrison Afful and Milton Valenzuela in their last go-around. Tinnerholm’s goal punctuated a terrific performance. With their previously ragged central defense performing better in recent weeks and their elite midfield clicking, providing service to David Villa won’t come through the center. Getting wide and attacking will be key, and it starts with the fullbacks.