The majority of MLS teams play either a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3. Just four of the 22 clubs — D.C. United, New England Revolution, San Jose Earthquakes, and Toronto FC — use something other than one of those formations as their main look. In addition, most teams have a fluid, varying tactical approach that is based around their best attacking players. I’ve seen very few teams come out with something noticeably different.
Colorado will sit deep and play narrow, the Red Bulls will press, TFC have their three-at-the-back, and NYCFC will play from the back at all costs. All of these clubs finished top three in their conferences, and two reached their conference final.
The Columbus Crew also have a distinct style. They used it to host an MLS Cup in 2015 with virtually the same starting XI that they have now. But that system saw them finish well out of a playoff spot last season, and the same issues that plagued them last season — bad finishing, stupid mistakes, and fading down the stretch — allowed Chicago to pull off a 1-1 draw at MAPFRE Stadium last week. Columbus are a curious case.
They should be a playoff team this year, though, and they were predicted by some to be MLS Cup contenders. Their XI is noticeably better than it was last season; in fact, it looks a lot closer to what it was in 2015.
That means the Dynamo, who host the Crew this week, have to be prepared for what Columbus will throw at them. They have to be prepared for a particularly unique playing style, and one that is not seen elsewhere in this league.
Here’s what they will do:
1. Keep possession at the back: The Crew completed the second most passes of any team in MLS last week, with 545 (tied with the Galaxy and behind only Seattle). 492 of those passes were categorized as ‘short’ and 82 of them were completed by d-mid Wil Trapp, 17 more than anyone else (Trapp’s midfield partner Mohammed Abu, who came off after 75 minutes, was second).
Don’t be confused by the possession percentages that come out, because those can be misleading. Watch the games and see how Columbus make a point of circulating the ball.
Their shape when they have the ball deeper is what makes it effective. Gregg Berhalter likes to drop Trapp behind the two center backs and distribute from the position of what would be a sweeper if they didn’t have the ball. This allows Abu or Tony Tchani to step forward and clog the middle, which gives No. 10 Federico Higuain more room once he gets into possession.
2. Get it into Higuain: Perhaps Columbus’s most important player is Higuain, who is tasked with dropping deeper and playing the ball into the wingers, often Ethan Finlay on the flank.
When it was Kei Kamara leading the line as the lone forward, they would get Finlay and right back Harrison Afful bombing together up the right flank and sending cross after cross to Kamara. Now that it’s Ola up top, Finlay and Afful are forced to combine more with Higuain and Justin Meram in the final third.
3. Look to Meram as a secondary creator: When Higuain drops to receive the ball from Trapp, the left winger Meram will pinch into the space the Argentine would have been filling and act as another playmaker in the final third.
Basically, it goes like this: Trapp --> Abu --> Higuain --> Finlay --> Meram --> Ola. And this is what it looks like:
Afful is, for all intents in purposes, a wing back or simply another right midfielder, because he doesn’t play right back a whole lot. The Fire hit the space he left hard and Columbus are very lucky that it didn’t result in more than one David Accam goal.
Also, look for Columbus to hit more than a few long balls to running wingers. Trapp can place a mean diagonal ball to the flank.
This should theoretically be a field day for speedy wingers and forwards on the counter if you’re Houston. They could also see their box-to-box midfielders find success on late runs when the Crew get spread out with their full backs forward; that’s why I put Ricardo Clark on my fantasy team this week.
Whatever the result is, it will be more exciting than last year’s Dynamo-Crew matchup.