Things were always going to get interesting, one way or another, on Tuesday night at MAPFRE Stadium. Columbus Crew SC were playing their first home game since owner Anthony Precourt’s desire to relocate to Austin, Texas became public, the background for a crucial first leg postseason match nonetheless. NYCFC, the second-seed and favorite, were the opponent.
There were plenty of on-field storylines to dwell on. The two clubs’ possession-based styles. How aggressive both would be, knowing recent first leg tactics. David Villa looking for his first postseason goal. Patrick Vieira and co. searching for redemption after getting thrashed by Toronto FC at this time last year.
But most were understandably focused on the off-field elements to this game. There were a ton. Crew fans showed up for their opportunity to convince Precourt (who was in attendance and shown in solemness on the ESPN broadcast). They chanted “Save the Crew” earnestly throughout the game, waving black and gold flags and tifos and disproving the reported attendance, which was controversially listed at just 14,000. There were unusual difficulties getting into the stadium for some, sparking conspiracy theories among Crew fans that actually seem plausible.
14,416 is the announced attendance for #CrewSC tonight.
— Massive Report (@MassiveReport) November 1, 2017
The actual game result? Well, that just makes things more interesting. Columbus blasted 10-man NYC 4-1, with Alexander Callens getting sent off in the 52nd minute and the hosts running out ahead from there. NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson had a rough outing, giving up a couple soft goals and committing a full howler on the Crew’s third.
Now, Columbus look almost certain to move on, barring a massive second-leg comeback at Yankee Stadium on Sunday. That means they’ll host another playoff game, which will give them an opportunity to continue their destined run to MLS Cup, which they are guaranteed to host should they get there.
After this magnificent result, they look capable of closing things out against NYC and then possibly threatening Toronto FC (who also look likely to advance) in the Eastern Conference Final. Despite flaws that were often evident on Tuesday, they win by playing to their tactical strengths and killing you in wide-open, aggressive games. Manager Gregg Berhalter isn’t much of a pragmatist, but he’s certainly pragmatic with his pretty soccer.
Against the Pigeons, Columbus spread the field out and tried to create a fast-paced, back-and-forth shootout, thankfully eschewing the “wait out a 0-0 draw” strategies of Vancouver and Houston before them. In a game that featured a lot of sloppy midfield turnovers and general untidiness with the ball, it came down to who could win the rec-league-style duels that were caused in the middle and then best take advantage in various types of transition opportunities.
Both teams had tons of chances in the first half, but while Ola Kamara tapped in a Johnson rebound in the sixth-minute, David Villa couldn’t find the target despite multiple clear opportunities, so we entered the locker room 1-0 for Columbus. Those opportunities usually came from turnovers in midfield or on the backline rather than any kind of patient build-up play, something both teams (particularly NYC) thrive on.
The Crew’s plan was clearly to try and sit off the ball. This tweet was from halftime:
— Andrew King (@AndrewKingMLS) November 1, 2017
They didn’t really “sit” off the ball, though. In fact, it was rather the opposite: Berhalter had his guys buzzing higher up the field and his attackers staying up, trying to create opportunities in space from takeaways in the low middle third. Once they got the ball, odd-man rushes could be created with Kamara, Justin Meram, Federico Higuain, and Pedro Santos. That’s when they could take possession, and use the space from there.
It felt like very situational soccer, especially because we only really got see it for a half due to Callens’ red, but that’s how Berhalter operates. Since finally laying off the “build-from-the-back at all costs” ethos sometime this summer, he has become more of an adaptable and provocative manager while still sticking to his core beliefs, which ultimately are what keep Crew games fun.
Vieira, who remembers all too well being thoroughly out-coached last year by TFC’s Greg Vanney in a 7-0 aggregate loss, angrily kicked a water bottle on the sideline while watching Columbus pile on goals. While this game proved unlucky in multiple ways for NYCFC — Villa usually doesn’t throw away those chances, and Callens getting a VAR red for an errant elbow is fluky — it can’t be forgotten that in three MLS Cup playoff games, Vieira’s team has been outscored by a combined 11-1. Not great.
NYC have real tactical issues to work out before the second leg. Most notably, winger Jack Harrison, their top source of attacking diversity, has gradually seen the quality of his shots decline since spring:
Quick point on Jack Harrison’s mid and late season struggles – it’s mostly been a shot quality thing, not a quantity one pic.twitter.com/R0ZD6Al0ft
— Kevin Minkus (@kevinminkus) November 1, 2017
While Harrison’s shot volume has increased, his average shot quality has decreased. Why exactly this is happening is unclear. Perhaps opponents are adjusting to his game, or maybe this is an individual thing, which could mean a less complicated fix. We do know that Villa’s shot quality has gone up in that time frame, and there is few correlation looking at the team’s stats.
This is a puzzle that Vieira has to solve, to go along with the struggles of countering Berhalter’s strategies and compensating for the suspension of Callens, who was the only field player to play every possible regular season minute in MLS this season.
For now, the Crew’s devoted fanbase can celebrate this win and continue to push for accountability from their owner. It only gets more interesting from here.