A lesson that resonated after the Columbus Crew SC’s bounce-back win over Atlanta United FC? Preparation is a balancing act.
Lying in the gap between tactics and execution stand the 11 players who, on one hand, share a collective game plan, but also hold the ability to, as head coach Caleb Porter put it, ‘play the game.’
“I’m still, while we’re winning games, learning the best way to approach this team on a weekly basis. What rhythm they like and how much information they like, how much they don’t like - that type of thing - and I thought as a staff we got it right this week,” Porter said following the Crew’s 2-0 victory over the defending MLS Cup champions.
“I’m finding that balance between how much freedom and how much automation and programming and information to give them. I thought we got it right this week, we gave them a little bit more information, a little bit more structure.”
Aside from the saturated field conditions that plagued Saturday’s match – a variable that, as Porter explained, was a reality of the sport – the Crew’s ability to execute, particularly in the early moments of the opening half where field conditions were more favorable, depended upon a balance of structure and creativity.
“I still believe you let players play the game; you can’t paralyze them with information,” Porter said, “but I think the key to unlocking a team’s potential is in that sweet spot of organization, structure, information. But you know that little bit of freedom, especially in the attacking part of the field, they can have that creativity and imagination, and I thought we got it right this week.”
Following a setback on the road last weekend, the Crew prepared for two types of systems from Atlanta, who ended up playing a 4-2-3-1. Porter said the team was prepared for it and played well despite it being the first time Atlanta's deployed that formation this season.
Early in the match, Atlanta had trouble containing Federico Higuain as the Crew’s midfield – both centrally and on the wings – played a pivotal role in both goals.
For the opening goal, Wil Trapp slipped it through to Artur on the far wing, as the Brazilian found Santos on the far post for the game-winner. In the second goal, it was fellow Brazilian Robinho who found space behind the lines before syncing with Zardes on a cut-back pass for a near-post finish from close range.
“Our identity is a passing team and a possession team and so, we need have that cohesiveness and that team play, those connections and I think you saw that again building off of [FC] Dallas,” Porter said. “Awesome for Pedro to get a goal, great for Robinho to chip in and get an assist. Great for Gyasi to get a goal. I thought Pipa was excellent today, he was for me, a difference maker and very clever. They had a hard time in the first 20 minutes picking him up, his movement. I love the way that he played and I love the way the entire team played, it was really good to see.”
As the game progressed, the balancing act shifted from preparation to execution, and given the conditions, ultimately to showcasing a sense of mental wherewithal, an aspect that Porter was really pleased with on the night.
“That’s the reality of our sport. You have to play through the conditions and I haven’t probably been in a game with conditions like this, I’ll be honest, but we were up 2-0, and you can kind of throw out the second half because there’s not much to really look at, other than again, I thought our mentality was excellent,” Porter said.
“Even in not getting the third goal – which we should have – there were a couple moments there where, at the end, where maybe they get a goal, and then the last 10 minutes would’ve been like 2-1. Fortunately, these guys didn’t let that happen and I’m real proud of them. I’m proud of their mentality, but I’m most proud of the football they played to start the match. So, we need to build off that and continue off of that moving forward.”
Up next, Columbus continues its homestand against the New England Revolution on Saturday, April 6 at 7:30 p.m. ET at MAPFRE Stadium.
Supporters can watch the match on FOX Sports Ohio, stream on FOX Sports GO, or listen on ESPN 1460 AM Columbus or www.ColumbusCrewSC.com (English & Spanish).