Finally, soccer in Columbus returns to the fold this weekend.
As Columbus Crew SC transitions from preseason tournament mode into regular-season schedule form, the season's first opponent - the New York Red Bulls - are coming off a 5-0 aggregate win over Dominican club Atlético Pantoja in the CONCACAF Champions League following Wednesday’s 3-0 win at Red Bull Arena.
However, the formidable fortress of MAPFRE Stadium leans Black and Gold, especially in regards to the match-up with the Red Bulls. Since March 28, 2015, the Crew are unbeaten at home against New York, with the latest Crew victory coming in a 1-0 score line on Nov. 4, 2018 in Leg 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
As for the Reds' style of play, it’s all-too-familiar to Crew SC.
“We know them, they are going to press high like they always do,” said defender Gaston Sauro. “We have to keep the ball, move the ball around them. It’s going to be a hard game. It’s a good open game, and I think it’s important for us to start winning at home against one of the best teams in the League.”
Including postseason play, the Black and Gold posted a 12-2-4 home record last season, which featured an eight-match unbeaten streak spanning more than four months from late June through early November.
Against the Red Bulls’ high press and typical man-to-man style of pressure, numerical superiority and overloading will be key in helping Crew SC maintain possession.
“We have to make sure we keep more of the ball because we know they are going to press, that’s one thing for sure,” said defender Harrison Afful. “We let them chase us, and as soon as we lose the ball we have to fight back and get it. That is one thing we are training on and it’s been working.”
Gyasi Zardes’ goal against New York on Nov. 4, 2018 represented that vulnerability a counter-press tactic can create. With Federico Higuain drawing his defender to a ball from Milton Valenzuela, all it took was a one-touch behind the line into space for Zardes to be left open for the finish.
Knowing the Red Bulls look to capitalize on creating chances from turnovers, Head Coach Caleb Porter likes the variety this group can bring and the ability to adjust away from opponents’ game plans.
“I like the balance of the team. You look at Wil and Artur and Pipa together, those three are really balanced,” Porter said. “All three can keep the ball, all three work hard, and will put the shift in defensively, which is important. It all kind of fits together and let’s not forget about Gyasi. Gyasi is the guy that’s finishing the play and he’s the spearhead of the attack and he stretches and brings that physical piece, so I think there’s very good balance in the team.”
Porter expects the team to continue playing higher in trying to establish more possession in the front half, and as part of the variety, he could see Artur and Trapp being interchangeable between the No. 6 and No. 8 position.
“When I look at the game against Cincinnati and I look at the goal, it was 10 passes, and 10 different players touched the ball and it was all in the front,” Porter said. “And I think that’s a really good example of the type of soccer that we want to play. We’ve added that into the good back half build-up, but that was not a trademark of Columbus, is keeping the ball in the front half, as patiently looking to keep the game there and it was really pleasing to see.
“So for me, I think you have to be unpredictable a little bit with who’s coming and getting the ball because if it’s always Wil, and Artur’s always pushing on, teams can kind of game plan for that and I think both are capable of playing deep and getting the ball out of the back. They are both capable of pushing on and helping support the attack.”