Matt "the Armchair Analyst" Doyle breaks down both of Sunday's second legs of the Conference Championships of the Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs. Check them out.
EAST: Columbus-New York | WEST:Portland-Dallas
Both the New York Red Bulls and Columbus Crew SC have tactical clarity in how they play the game.
Leg 1 of the Eastern Conference Championship, however, was much more about tactical flexibility than dogmatic adherence to any identity. Crew SC were happy to play through Kei Kamara up top, and pressed higher than they usually do, and were a little more cautious with their fullback play, and in so doing they produced a 2-0 win that has them in control of the series heading into Sunday's second leg (7:30 pm ET; FS1 | FOX Deportes | FOX Sports GO | MLS Live).
Here's how that game should shake out...
Columbus have been shut out just once since early July, and they've scored in each of their four meetings (regular season and playoffs) with the Red Bulls in 2015. If Crew SC get a single goal in this one, it means -- because of the away goals rule -- RBNY need to score four in order to advance.
New York can pitch shutouts, and obviously 2-0 (or even better, 3-0) is what they're looking for out of this one. But over the last few months of the season three of their four shutouts came against a cratering D.C. United team, and the other was against a Portland squad that didn't really show up on the day.
Even more worrying is that in Ronald Zubar's eight regular-season starts, RBNY didn't keep a single clean sheet.
What Columbus will do: Move Federico Higuain around
This is nothing new or different for Columbus. Higuain is the most relentlessly mobile No. 10 in MLS, and is liable to pop up anywhere on the field. He'll combine with his fullback on one side, hit a switch to the other and follow it, eventually becoming the third man in a triangle. He'll track back defensively, he'll get on the ball to help initiate attacks, he'll get ahead of the play to bag a goal.
Higuain's movement is a feature of Crew SC's scheme, not a bug. And he disrupted RBNY's normally tight midfield spacing:
Dax McCarty was so busy tracking Higuain that he didn't have time to run the game. If Columbus force that again, they'll advance.
How to solve it: Change the triggers
Higuain can move around so much because so much of the offensive initiation is handled by Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani. They're a couple of international-caliber deep-lying midfielders, but they're also prone to taking risks and can be run off the ball.
So instead of triggering the press on balls played back to the Crew SC backline, it might make more sense to go hard at Trapp and Tchani. Disrupting them means Higuain gets on the ball in less dangerous areas, and that means less danger for New York to deal with overall.
What New York will do: Get Bradley Wright-Phillips looks
Simple, right? Just get your goalscorer some looks!
Yes, I know this is banal and, in several ways, only skin-deep analysis. But sometimes the game is simple, and sometimes the best thing to do is keep it simple. New York had a bunch of final third entries in the first leg, and they were repeatedly hesitant to play through the midfield (as is their wont) and work those clever little top-of-the-box reversals that have resulted in so many goals this season.
Instead they settled for crosses. Lots of them:
Green are complete crosses, red are incomplete. Yellow are key passes -- passes that lead to a shot -- and blue are assists. Lots of red, very little green, and no yellow or blue to speak of. RBNY took the easy way out on a lot of these, and got bupkis in return.
And it's not like they were finding BWP in other phases of the game. Lloyd Sam only completed two passes to him, while Sacha Kljestan failed to complete a single pass to Wright-Phillips from the run of play.
Expect them to try to set the tone early and do everything they can to get their go-to guy some looks.
How to solve it: Keep the line deep
I thought Gregg Berhalter did a very smart thing in the first leg. He had his team press really high when New York were initiating possession, then drop really, really deep on the occasions that RBNY were on the ball in the final third. They spent a lot of time defending in the box, daring New York's attackers to shoot through a forest of defenders or try to combine in the tightest of spaces.
To RBNY's credit, they did carve out a number of pretty good looks, but they were shut out for the first time in 25 games. That's no accident.
One thing to keep an eye on, though, is what Jesse Marsch does with Anatole Abang. He's a big target forward who only got a cameo in the first leg, but could be in line for more time in the second. Abang, like all good targets, forces defenders to deal with him first, and then the ball -- a great way to create room for the rest of the attack. If he's in there, Columbus will have to push their back line higher up the field.
What's it all mean?
As Berhalter said after last week's game, New York are going to come out hot. I'm 100 percent certain the idea will be to land a few punches in the first 20 minutes, get the goal, and get into halftime at 2-1. That will give them a fighting chance in the second 45.
But Columbus are too good to let this one slip away. I think New York end up scoring two or three, but Crew SC get one of their own as well. And thus, they make it back to MLS Cup for the first time since 2008.