Though Higuain continued to play through the 66th minute, the prospects of him being out for Saturday’s home match vs. New York City FC means the chance-creating spotlight shifts to Santos, who generated a team-high two shots on target and two key passes last Saturday in addition to team-highs in duels (14), crosses (8), and possessions gained (6). Notably, both Santos and Higuain are one of only four pairs of teammates in MLS to have created 23 or more chances in regular-season play this season, per Opta.
Earlier this week, head coach Caleb Porter spoke on Santos’ importance, particularly in the upcoming match against a steady NYCFC side, and the dilemma of switching systems in accordance with available personnel, or playing guys in non-traditional positions in a consistent style.
“That is the cycle we are in right now. We can’t just look to improve off of last game, we have to take each week as a one-off and look who is available, evaluate our system, and evaluate our game plan,” Porter said. “We have four outside backs out, playing the exact same way that we wanted to play earlier in the year. And I think that has hurt us a little bit.”
As for Santos, he is a key figure at this point in time, Porter mentioned.
“Pedro is massive,” said Porter. “You look at Pipa possibly being out...Pedro is one of our primary chance creators now.”
With outside backs playing an integral role in the Crew’s offense, Gyasi Zardes noted the importance of those positions in creating pockets for technical players like Santos, who is accustomed to operating in tight spaces.
“It is extremely important to find Pedro in the pocket just because he plays very technical in tight spaces, but also, we want to get the ball to his feet so he can go 1v1,” Zardes said. “It is the same with [David Accam]. We want to have him in a 1v1 scenario like Pedro as well. The more we find those guys, the more successful that we are.”
Looking at the heat map from Saturday’s match, Santos’s activity remained primarily on the flank.
Combined with Higuain’s positioning, the pair maintained a healthy presence around the 18-yard-box as balls were fed into Zardes, with supplementing runs from Accam and Niko Hansen, who played at rightback for his first Starting XI appearance of 2019.
Looking ahead, Santos said the team needs to display more aggressiveness in taking on defenders and finding pockets and space behind the lines.
“In this last game we had some space in the pockets and sometimes we missed the timing and we missed the pass. We need to be focused on this and be better in finding the pockets,” Santos said, “because when we find the pockets, we can create more opportunities for Gyasi or for Pipa or me, Robinho, Accam. We need to be better in the pockets. When we get the ball in the pockets, we need to be aggressive to attack space with passes or shooting.”
Granted these are all things Porter and the coaching staff have continued to emphasize, and for Santos, his goal versus Colorado was a testament to the work the team has put forth in training.
“[My] goal was what we did in training. We know we want to explore behind lines. We did this well and I saw the space and attacked the ball,” Santos said.
As for the focus in training this week? Much of the same, Santos said.
“We need to be better inside the box. We need to find space in the box and behind the lines; get some crosses, attack the space, attack the ball,” Santos said. “Be aggressive and be confident. We need to keep confidence high because we know we are a good team. We will play at home. We need to win, and we want to win too.”
Meanwhile, Saturday’s match comes against a talented NYCFC team that has found consistency after going winless in their first six matches. Head coach Dome Torrent has continued to employ a 3-4-2-1 formation as NYCFC has gone unbeaten in their last eight matches, including a five-match road unbeaten streak that includes wins against Montreal and the LA Galaxy.
Offensively, both sides stand very much parallel but it’s on the defensive side that NYCFC holds the advantage, having conceded just 13 goals compared to Columbus’ 22, while the Black & Gold have conceded the first goal 10 times in 15 matches.
However, history lies in favor of the Crew, who hold a 2-1-2 advantage over NYCFC all-time in regular-season play. Come Saturday, the Black & Gold hope to manage a six-point swing as NYCFC sits three points above Columbus at 19 points and in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, as only eight points separate the first- and seventh-place teams in the East.