Columbus Crew rolls into Red Bull Arena on April 22, arriving with some swagger: top of the Eastern Conference, with recent wins over Portland, Orlando, and Toronto. What has the Crew clicking so early in the season, and what will RBNY have to deal with on Saturday? Massive Report's Pat Murphy is here to advise.
Once A Metro: How's the view at the top of the league? Seems like a lot is going right for Columbus at the moment, after a lot went not so right last season. What's changed?
Pat Murphy, Massive Report: A lot has changed, specifically on the defensive side of things. Gregg Berhalter made it a priority in the off-season to improve the team's backline. In fact, the first five additions for this year were defenders, including using the first pick in the SuperDraft on center-back Lalas Abubakar. With the way Crew SC play and the emphasis put on the offense, the defense will likely never be one of the tops in the league, but over the first seven games, the defense has been pretty impressive.
Another thing, and this partially goes in line with the defense, is the youth movement going on in Columbus. For the first time under Berhalter, the Black & Gold had high draft picks: their own and the New England Revolution's. One of those became the aforementioned Abubakar and the other turned into Niko Hansen, who has a goal and an assist on the season and started last match. Also, Brazilian midfielder Artur (21) and Homegrown product Alex Crognale (22) have both played major roles in this young campaign.
Both of these things, along with staying relatively healthy to start the year, have helped reinvigorate this team. It hasn't been a perfect start, and I don't believe Crew SC is yet to put in a full 90-minute performance, but as you mentioned, the team is top of the East, tied for top in MLS and the confidence and belief is growing.
OaM: Current form notwithstanding, what are your expectations for the team this season?
PM: Heading into the season, here were my thoughts. Berhalter had coached three years. In his first two, he made the playoffs and had much of the league talking about Columbus. In his third season, he dealt with injuries to two key pieces in Federico Higuain and center-back Gaston Sauro and lost expected top scorer Kei Kamara. Did the team underachieve in 2016? Sure, but with the three top-paid players from the start of the year gone for much of the season, it was hard to adjust on the fly, especially given the MLS Cup loss hangover from early on.
With that all said, I believe this team should be in the postseason nearly every year under Berhalter. His track record is short, but it's also pretty positive. Despite all the things I mentioned above, the Black & Gold still only missed the postseason by six points last season.
I think this group is good enough to do some pretty impressive things. Going into the year, I said they would finish around second or third in the East. I think that's still probably where I'd put them, but I'm certainly leaning more towards second than third with the start to the season.
OaM: Does the team line up any differently on the road than at home? What should we expect of the Crew at Red Bull Arena?
PM: Normally, I would say no. You would see the typical 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 Crew SC plays, but Berhalter has been much more unpredictable this year. The team played with a three-man backline in a road match with D.C. United earlier this season, against the Portland Timbers at home, right back Harrison Afful was deployed as almost an additional central midfielder and two weeks ago against the Chicago Fire on the road, the team switch to a 4-3-3 without Higuain.
As for the approach, I imagine it will remain the same. This team doesn't believe in playing conservative on the road (or at least claims not to). I expect Columbus to look to possess and attack as usual. As for the way they do that, your guess is about as good as mine.
Harrison Afful-Alex Crognale-Nicolai Naess-Jukka Raitala
Ethan Finlay-Wil Trapp-Artur-Justin Meram
Predicted score: I said 1-1 on our podcast so I'll stick with that. If Red Bulls stick with the more familiar formation, it wouldn't surprise me if New York gets the home win.