Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Armchair Analyst: Tactical preview of Columbus Crew SC vs. New York Red Bulls in Eastern Conference Championship

Matt "the Armchair Analyst" Doyle breaks down both of Sunday's first legs of the Conference Championships of the Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs. Check them out. 

EAST: Columbus-New York | WEST:Portland-Dallas

Get hype, peasants! It's the Eastern Conference Championship!

The playoffs are supposed to be a crapshoot, but that really hasn't been the case recently. The New York Red Bulls are the Supporters' Shield winners, and Columbus Crew SC finished second place in the Eastern Conference. These are the two teams that are, based upon both merit and accomplishment, supposed to be here.

So ahead of Sunday's first leg of the Eastern Conference Championship (5 pm ET; ESPN | ESPN Deportes | MLS LIVE) at MAPFRE Stadium, I'm just going to say it: This feels right.

This isn't a case of two teams getting hot at right time. This is a case of two solid, creative and balanced rosters implementing and executing their respective tactical visions at a high level.

The Trends:

The New York Red Bulls got out of the gates strong (unbeaten in seven), and other than a four-game slide in late spring, they looked and played like the best team in the league pretty much all season. They won the Supporters' Shield, they set a franchise record for points, they spread out their scoring burden, and they turned a Homegrown with potential into arguably the most promising young player in the USMNT pool.

I put a lot of stock into overall goal differential, and generally speaking +15 on the season means "elite team that can win with defense or offense." RBNY finished the year at +19, which was easily the best mark in MLS.

Their aggregate shutout of D.C. United in the East semis was a welcome result, since they'd posted just one clean sheet over the season's final two months.

Columbus Crew SC came into the season as co-favorites in the East (along with the Revs), but didn't really find their form until the second half of the year. They went 5-6-6 in their first 17 games; they went 10-5-2 in their last 17. Getting Wil Trapp healthy, getting Gaston Sauro and Harrison Afful integrated and pulling in the right direction together on the backline, and getting the unforced errors mostly out of their system were keys to that turnaround.

Sauro, for what it's worth, will miss this one with a suspension.

The bigger worry for Columbus is this: In their last 14 regular-season and playoff home games, they've posted just one shutout. It was an emphatic, 5-0 win over the same D.C. United team that the Red Bulls just dispatched – a true outlier. Even with their good second-half-of-the-season form, they still concede home goals.

That's a concern in any series where away goals serve as a tiebreaker.

What New York will do: Up the tempo and play direct

New York are a creative, high-scoring, and intricate team with the ball. They are skillful and inventive. They are fun to watch.

But they are also very, very direct. Their ethos – I'm going to paraphrase Jesse Marsch here – is to always try to pick and play the most dangerous, cutting pass. They want to eliminate opposing defenders as quickly as possible and they want to hit gaps hard and at speed.

So the "pretty" goals New York score rarely come after a long build-up or a big switch. They play the fewest long balls in the league and are middling in passes per possession. What they do instead is turn you over deep in your own end, keep you pinned, then suffocate you:

Look at how, once the ball's been cycled, everything New York does is north-south, designed to keep the defense under constant pressure and coax desperation clearances that can either A) be evaded, or B) turned into a penalty. Dax McCarty is the d-mid, and he's standing there 25 yards away from the goal pinging one-touch passes directly to the feet of his attackers in the 18.

Nobody else in the league plays quite like this.

How to solve it: Deny the entry pass from the back

The central midfield triumverate of McCarty, Felipe and Sacha Kljestan is arguably the best in the league and pretty clearly the main component of this season's success. But RBNY's "go forward!" ethos starts on the backline, and the teams that have had success against them this seasons are the ones that have been able to coax wayward passes out of New York's central defenders.

Crew SC have had success with this very strategy, and not all that long ago.

Expect them to try to take advantage of Ronald Zubar, whose distribution is much slower, less accurate and more predictable than the injured Damien Perrinelle's.

What Columbus will do: Slow it down and switch the field of play
Columbus are a creative, high-scoring and intricate team with the ball. They are skillful and inventive. They are fun to watch.

And they are polar opposites of New York in how they want to try to control the game. They played at the second-slowest tempo in MLS, with just more than 140 possessions per game (RBNY were at 157), and their 3.6 passess per possession was second most in the league. Most strikingly, 41 percent of Crew SC's expected goals in 2015 came from long sequences of five or more passes – easily the best in the league.

Those long passing sequences come from long switches from deep in midfield, where Trapp and Tony Tchani are masterful at pulling teams apart:

<strong>Team Name</strong>
<strong>Per Game</strong>
<strong>Long balls</strong>
Columbus Crew SC
Orlando City SC
Portland Timbers
Seattle Sounders FC
Montreal Impact
D.C. United
New England Revolution
Toronto FC
FC Dallas
LA Galaxy

I know I've already used that table once this postseason, but it really is the key to how Crew SC play. And they only got better against Montreal, completing better than 60 percent of their long balls in 210 minutes.

Columbus' fullbacks are wildly aggressive when pushing forward, which forces their opponents to stretch out laterally and cover the whole field. When that happens, playmaker Federico Higuain drops into pockets to pick up the ball and create from odd angles, while Kei Kamara's presence in the central channel keeps opposing central defenders honest.

It's as vicious as what RBNY do. It's just very, very different.

How to solve it: Ballhawk on the flanks

If you let Columbus' fullbacks get in a rhythm moving forward, you're toast. New York solved that in the teams' most recent meeting by having their own fullbacks stay wide and jump passing lanes, especially upon early distribution:

There is the very real danger of getting stretched out and allowing Ethan Finlay to run in behind on a play like this, which is why RBNY have to pick their spots. They don't need to pick off every pass – just enough to make the Columbus backline jumpy and hesitant.

What's it all mean?

This game is fun because it's a matchup of ideologies as much as it is of actual teams. Marsch and Gregg Berhalter have specific styles that they want their teams to play, and they stick to it come hell or high water.

I give Columbus the slightest of edges because their core has been together and playing in this manner for 12 months longer than New York's, and because Perrinelle's absence is a real handicap. Crew SC take the opener, 2-1.