Alright, alright, alright - a nice win last week brings FC Dallas into Week 3 with a 1-0-1 record. This week, the band heads up to Ohio to visit the Columbus Crew. Columbus also picked up a win last week, against New England, to improve to 1-0-1 as well and are now sitting atop the Eastern Conference (on goal differential and alphabetical order) with four points. FC Dallas, also with 4 points, aren’t sitting top of the table, but reside in 4th place in the West behind the three teams who have won both weeks thus far.
In this week’s case study of “new season, new things” we come to the most unique team yet. #SavetheCrew was such a movement last year, that it actually worked! With new ownership taking over the Crew, things have changed all over the FO and coaching staff. Jimmy and Dee Haslam are now signing the checks. Tim Bezbatchenko for Toronto is GM. And Caleb Porter is now Head Coach. In a way this isn’t really new at all. Bezbatchenko was a successful GM in Toronto, and most pertinently, Caleb Porter is one of the most recognized coaches in MLS. After taking a year off from coaching, Porter jumped aboard the “new project” that is going on in Columbus. Apart from your feelings on the Haslam’s as owners (read the ESPN article about their Browns ownership), their commitment to build a new stadium, new facilities, and to reinvest in the club is what many of the original MLS teams fan bases dream about, including some in this fan base. It worked out for SKC and looks promising in D.C. at the moment, so who knows.
So, who and what should we be watching for on Saturday?
Let’s start with how Porter has set this team up to play. Columbus plays a more conventional game using the 4-2-3-1 formation, but the new wrinkle is how they incorporate what Porter refers to as a “counter-press.” In a nutshell, the team wants to have possession as much as possible. When they turn over possession, the entire team immediately presses hard and fast. The closest players swarm the ball like angry bees, while the remaining players cover the closest immediate passing options. This chokes the man in possession and either harasses them into a bad touch or bad pass, which creates a turnover for Columbus and they go right back on the attack. If somehow the other team can work their way out of this swarm of attention for a few seconds, Columbus will back off the pressure, regroup, and get back into its defensive shape and settle into a more defined formation and defensive posture.
It’s like employing a “Work Smarter Not Harder” type of press. If you need an example, this is the system Pep G established in Barcelona, and he now employs at Manchester City. For more details, Massive Report wrote a more comprehensive article here and here.
This is strategy is smart one for Columbus as they have a few players starting that are over the age of 30 and the team is not particular deep, which is an issue when you run your players into the ground with a press. For starters, the Crew’s talisman midfielder, Federico Higuain is 34 and probably not long for this league. Fortunately for Crew, he isn’t gone yet as Higuain is still the best player and pulls the strings for Columbus’ offense. He is creative on the ball and dangerous around the goal. He is every bit as good as any number 10 in the league and has the potential to be an MVP candidate if Porter can get him to play like Valeri did in Portland.
The next key cog for Columbus, and I can’t believe I’m typing this, is probably Gyasi Zardes. The former LA Galaxy forward was overrated for years before finally moving to Ohio last season. And then poof, he turned in his best season as a professional, scoring 19 goals. All the potential came together for him he became arguably the harbinger of Crew results. Probably (mainly) because almost no one else could score.
Which leads to our next minor tweak of play style. Porter prefers his wingers to be more dynamic, more explosive, and crucially, more productive than anyone Columbus used last season. Pedro Santos had one goal and seven assists last season. Nico Hanson had three goals. After a 13 goal season in 2017 (more than double his career average) Justin Meram was shipped to Orlando City, where he fell into Everglades along with the other talented players there. After a half season wandering around on a hovercraft, and only one goal to his name, Meram was traded back to Columbus, where he brought his hovercraft with him and scored one more goal, for a grand total of two in 2018. In total, wingers scored five, maybe six goals for Columbus last season. That was partly by design of Gregg Berhalter, but also indicative of the talent available. Porter will slowly try to establish more attack minded wingers who create more goals, for themselves and others. Or conversely, he can just start one of his few new signings, Brazilian winger Robinho (not to be confused with the more famous and older Robinho). The 24-year old winger was recruited while Berhalter was still in charge but fits perfectly with what Porter wants from his wingers. He’s fast down the wing and provides lots of width with his play.
Next up down the line is Wil Trapp and his midfield partner Artur. Unlike Porter’s old duo of Chara and Guzman, Trapp and Artur rely less on the physical nature of the game and more on their smarts and positioning. I’m not trying to work around calling them soft, because they aren’t. But they are just not the battering rams that Chara and Guzman are. Moving back into the defense, Columbus has quite a few options, but the main man is Jonathan Mensa. He was a rock for Columbus and helped anchor one of the best defensive teams in the league. Although, it also helps to have USMNT Keeper of the Future, Zack Steffan in goal as well. Beside Mensah will probably be Gaston Sauro and the duo form a solid pairing. You will see Harrison Afful and Waylon Francis occupy the fullback spots.
If you saw last week against New England, Columbus was more than happy to sit back and soak up an uncreative Revolution side and counter attack them. I expect the same strategy against Dallas, even though we are on the road. And here is the reason why - the strategy to beat the counter press, really any press, is poise on the ball and ball movement. For a counter press, one mistake and the advantage is lost and the opposing team doesn’t have to play smart, just fast, and a counter attack is on. Now think back to last week’s game against LA. What’s that crazy stat that popped up that Dallas consecutive passes to kill off the game? That pass in and possession is exactly what it takes to beat Columbus. It will require some patience as well. Columbus basically suffocated NE by dropping back into a defensive shell and letting the Revs waste possession after possession trying to break them down. Dallas has the creativity, speed, and skill to beat the press. Michael Barrios’s speed will be a huge factor if they can hit him on an outlet. Paxton Pomykal and Santiago Mosquera can work one-twos around Trapp and Artur if they catch them in transition. Shoot, Bryan Acosta and Carlos Gruezo can both create advantages through line splitting passes. And Reto Ziegler is no slouch in distribution either.
Key Matchup: Carlos Gruezo vs Federico Higuain
I was tempted to put Paxton vs Trapp there (much as I am to put Paxton at the focus of every article anyway), but I’m going to play it conservative here. I don’t know how Luchi Gonzalez plans on setting up for away games. Does he stay true to his convictions and play to win or, in his first away game as the big boss, will he be more pragmatic and play for the draw? My fellow writer El Chico Carmona is fond of reminding us that a point on the road is a good result. Because of that, I think Gruezo shutting down Higuain is the main play here. He is the best player on the Crew and everything goes through him right now. On the flip side, when Gruezo creates a turnover, which he is very good at, he will be the first man facing the counter press. His decision making could very well decide how aggressive Dallas is on the attack.
Three Keys to the Game:
1. Tactical Discipline - I’ve laid out just a few examples of how this game plays out. But it’s not about me (obviously) making these calls. Whatever Luchi decides, the team has to keep a clear head and be disciplined in its ideas or the press will swallow them whole and Columbus will dominate.
2. Pass and Move – Again, that crazy stat about Dallas consecutive passes last week – that’s what can win this match. Keep Columbus in their shell and work them over with your passing.
3. Conservative defense – This is mainly an attribute to beat the press and contain Columbus when they do get the turnover. Keeping the fullbacks back will provide more available options to work out of the press or conversely keep everyone in a safe position when their press works.
To wrap things up quickly, Dallas goes up to Columbus and plays a careful, conservative match - and gets 1 point in a 1-1 draw. There will be opportunities to score more goals. It’s about whether you believe Dallas will capitalize on them. I’m a homer, sure, but also a realist, and it doesn’t seem likely this weekend. Go Hoops!