The MLS Cup playoffs are here again, ready to cloud notions of quality and punish front offices practicing sensible team building over front-loaded star chasing. Whatever one’s feelings on cup matches, it is a ritual in which all must participate. Glory is on the menu, but once again the diner from New York may have forgotten his reading glasses.
The Moirai would be hard-pressed to throw a more difficult opponent in the path of the Red Bulls. This edition of the Crew is everything one expects from a well-disciplined Caleb Porter team. They are equally comfortable hoarding and ceding possession. Nearly every player is capable of spraying the ball around the field. The ability to pass through lines of defenders, a devastating counter-attack, and creativity in the final third makes Columbus a nightmare for any team attempting to box them into a section of the field.
The usual goal of the high press is to swarm the midfield, creating numeric superiority and forcing the ball backwards and to the wings. It’s a solid, proven strategy for a team operating under a competent manager with complete control of the composition and day-to-day actions of his squad, which might not be the most accurate description of the current Red Bulls. Two years of wilderness wandering left the press disorganized, punctuated by frequent moments of individual over-pursuit and general malaise, and easily surpassed by any player in possession of an ounce of creativity. Holding midfielders Darlington Nagbe and Artur are a challenge to contain on the Red Bulls’ best days, which have long since passed but may soon return again.
If the Red Bulls manage to force the Crew back and to the left, the desired outcome might not be there for the seizing. While high pressing teams normally feast on opponents attempting to play the ball out of the defensive third, Columbus’ defense is not composed of the usual inefficient, clumsy hoofers, instead serving as the calming bellwether for the entire game plan. Center backs Jonathan Mensah and Aboubacar Keita are more than capable of receiving the ball under pressure and moving possession forward with an advancing pass or field switch. Sprightly fullbacks Harrison Afful and Milton Valenzuela will stuff the stat sheet with passes and dance down the sideline, unbothered by whatever pressure is thrown their way.
The Red Bulls have quite the challenge ahead if the press is going to function. Of course, as the movie trope goes, “Then, it gets difficult.” The weakness of any counter press is transition defending, and Columbus’ strength lies in its attack, one that resembles every front-line that has caused problems and revealed systemic flaws in the club’s vaunted system. Numbers get forward, the tempo is pushed, and back post runs are frequent.
Attacking midfielder Lucas Zelarayán is swift on the counter-attack and capable of making long, slaloming runs that draw defenders and open up space for his teammates, that is, when he’s not uncorking bombs from distance. Pedro Santos darts and dashes around the box, waiting for the opportune moment to play the perfect pass. A familiar winger by the name of Derrick Etienne, though not statistically prolific, wreaks havoc with his speed and tenacity, perhaps unlocked by the right manager suited to his needs. There’s the largely misunderstood Gyasi Zardes, a throwback pure striker who does little else but convert, an ability most fans covet but are ashamed to publicly admit. If that group fails to break down the door, a lightning-and-thunder cadre of Luis Díaz, Emmanuel Boateng, Youness, Mokhtar, Krisztián Németh, and Fanendo Adi is available off the bench. The notable and productive who’s who of depth speaks to Porter’s abilities as a facilitator of talent and roster builder.
The bare fact is the Crew has more speed, creativity, and dynamic prowess warming up on the sideline than the Red Bulls have in the starting lineup. Granted, none of them can press as fiercely and intelligently as their opposing number, but the sport may be preparing to move past its latest tactical evolution. The once-revered symphony of tiki-taka possession begot post-modern counter pressing. It’s only natural this strategy will, in turn, birth its own terrifying monster sending ripples of systemic change through the world, likely an updated version of the 3-3-4 with pass-first center backs refusing to engage with traps and accurately playing the ball forward to an overloaded front-line.
That’s tomorrow’s problem, and, for now, the priority must be sticking to the largely successful high press, regardless of an individual opponent’s predilection for its destruction and demise. The 2015 Eastern Conference Finals series against the Crew is arguably the zero hour of the quixotic search for a “Plan B.” This fabled secondary tactic based in possession and players of a different mold would steer the Red Bulls to victory when the press was not working, either due to an opposition bunker-and-counter or general incompetence. In five years, two-and-a-half managers have passed through the technical area, but a pass-heavy attack was never successfully implemented and these difference-making talents were never pursued in earnest. To the chagrin of many, the club will be doubling down on the core identity in the near and distant future, with both the hiring of Red Bull disciple Gerhard Struber and his immediate insertion into the role under circumstances when many clubs would have opted to bang the drum slowly.
This is not an unbeatable Crew behemoth, far from it. However, it is a squad almost perfectly designed to beat a high pressing team, a largely useless lump of graphene that breaks the buzz saw but serves no greater purpose. The Red Bulls are going to stick to the plan because what else are they going to do? You are who you are to your core. Abandoning one’s identity in a desperate hunt for approval won’t bring results, and the outsiders making demands for temporary changes won’t give credit for the attempt. Staying the course is the only option, even in the face of certain defeat.
Although it is the playoffs, so perhaps underdog status is a virtue.