MLS Cup Playoffs: Breaking the Press Remains Critical for Columbus Crew SC

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MLS Cup Playoffs
COLUMBUS, OH - NOVEMBER 04: Columbus Crew forward Gyasi Zerdes (11) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal in the MLS eastern conference semifinals game between the Columbus Crew SC and the New York Red Bulls on November 04, 2018 at Mapfre Stadium in Columbus, OH. The Crew won 1-0. (Photo by Adam Lacy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Editorial (November 10, 2018)Columbus Crew SC is in a great position to make the MLS final four for the second straight season.

They head into leg two of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the New York Red Bulls with a narrow advantage after a 1-0 win in last Sunday’s first leg. Federico Higuaín’s display of distributive genius on what inevitably was the game-winning goal by Gyasi Zardes played a part in the Black and Gold’s advantage.

The result gives Columbus some margin for error at Red Bull Arena this weekend. Basically, any loss by one goal in which they find the net at least once will clinch their spot in the conference finals. That’s due to the away goals tiebreaker. A 1-0 defeat sets up an extra time period and possibly a penalty shootout where Crew SC is undefeated over the last two postseasons.

But who’s to say Columbus can’t win Sunday’s return leg outright. After all, they were one of just two teams to defeat the Red Bulls in Harrison this year. Momentum is certainly on their side after what transpired at MAPFRE Stadium in leg one.

MLS Cup Playoffs: Breaking the Press Remains a Key to Victory for Columbus Crew SC

In order to come away with a result amenable to staying alive, Crew SC must continue to effectively deal with that staple of RBNY’s style of play: the high press. It remains a critical element of their identity under Chris Armas who succeeded Jesse Marsch after the latter took an assistant’s job for Bundesliga club RB Leipzig. They certainly didn’t miss a beat after the coaching change.

The Red Bulls went 12-3-3 during the regular season under Armas. It led to them finishing with an MLS record 71 points. That’s an immensely underrated feat considering the hype around Atlanta United seemingly all season. It makes the situation Columbus finds itself in all the more impressive.

Nevertheless, there’s still at least 90 minutes of soccer to be played between these two sides. And the vaunted high-energy pressing style that resulted in the Red Bulls winning their third Supporters’ Shield since 2013 will continue to play a factor. It necessitates a repeat performance for Crew SC if they want to advance to the conference finals.

The Challenge of the Red Bulls High Line

What does this entail? The modern game is full of innovative tactical ideas, including the gegenpressing style the Red Bulls implement. It involves playing a high forward line and attempting to win the ball back almost immediately after they lose possession. In theory, such a methodology should create problems for a team like Columbus.

The reason is the inherent nature of Crew SC’s possession-oriented style under Gregg Berhalter. It makes them vulnerable to defensive third turnovers with the Red Bulls attacking the ball like sharks who smell blood in the water. What it requires is soundness on the ball and incisive passing from the back four to break the initial line of pressure.

If they can do so, it opens up acres of space in the midfield. That’s something you don’t want if your opponent has a player of Higuaín’s quality on the pitch. The Argentinian playmaker is making the case for MLS playoff MVP with his play in the postseason so far. His magnificent assist on Zardes’ goal was a perfect example of exploiting defensive gaps made possible by successfully breaking the RBNY press.

It certainly poses a challenge to Crew SC’s distributive ethos. As of right now, their 83.4 percent passing accuracy ranks third in MLS. It took a bit of a hit in the first leg with them only completing 71 percent of their 426 passes. The way the Red Bulls continually hound the opposition in a determined attempt to win the ball in their half of the field is a big reason why.

The Black and Gold are 90 minutes away from making the MLS semifinals for the second straight year. They’re here as a result of clutch on-field execution and an astute tactical game plan from Berhalter. If they can take the bull by the horns once again on Sunday, championship glory will remain in the cards.

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