Both Oscar Pareja and Wilfried Nancy use the word “aggressive” to describe the stylistic model of their opponents in Saturday's Eastern Conference Semifinal at Exploria Stadium (5:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass), and with good reason.
That said, they’re applying that term in markedly different contexts.
Orlando City SC vs. Columbus Crew might be the irresistible-force-meets-immovable-object matchup of these Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. A clash of arguably the best-remaining defense vs. the best-remaining attack, one of the league’s most ideologically uncompromising coaches facing off with perhaps its most pragmatic.
Open and progressive under Nancy’s swashbuckling possession system, the Crew led MLS in both goals (67, one ahead of Atlanta United) and open-play expected goals (50.33, and it wasn't particularly close) during the regular season. Paced by three tallies from star striker Cucho Hernández, they have also been the postseason’s most prolific scorers with eight goals in their three games vs. Atlanta in Round One, where Nancy notably declared that he tells his players “the scoreboard is not important” compared to their execution of his expansive game model.
“It’s a very good team with a great coach as well. I know his way since he was coaching Montréal before,” Pareja told MLSsoccer.com in a one-on-one conversation this week. “I always say the game is a story of proposals and risk. So you have an initiative and you have to know that your initiative can have a lot at risk, or may not have much of a risk. But that's the decision. Sometimes it's more bold, it’s bolder.
“In Columbus, you can see that initiative to be more aggressive. I guess that sometimes they need to defend too, and now our initiative is just to create a way where we can make them worry about defending, too. So we'll see.”
The Lions, meanwhile, tied for fifth-fewest goals conceded during the regular season (39) and are the only team in the playoffs yet to concede a goal, anchored by the world-class shotstopping of Peruvian international goalkeeper Pedro Gallese. That ruggedness is fueled by the street smarts of their large corps of South Americans, including Pareja himself, a Colombian international during his playing days.
A run to last year’s US Open Cup trophy built belief, and the group has methodically consolidated that progress in 2023.
“It's important that we recognize ourselves, that we have been more mature,” said Pareja, “not just in this series of playoffs against Nashville, but I think during the season where we have key moments where we needed to resolve those games. And some of them were away, against clubs that were ahead of us. In those games, we show that we can do it. So it gave us credibility among ourselves, it gave us confidence. Now the playoff game, managing the games the way we did against Nashville, it just gives us more confidence still.”
Rematch for the ages
Pareja’s teams have played some flowing soccer over the years, particularly the FC Dallas side that won a Supporters’ Shield-US Open Cup double in 2016. But this OCSC side have been the epitome of canny control and combativeness, particularly at home, where they haven’t lost a match since April.
“We're going to play in Orlando and we know that they are really aggressive. This is the way they play,” Nancy told reporters last week. “It's going to be a good exercise for us to play our football, and to be calm. Intense, but calm. Because we know that the game's going to be really difficult over there.”
If previous meetings are anything to go by, Saturday evening could well serve up a barnburner – regardless of how much Orlando might wish to keep things tight. Back on Sept. 16, the Crew came as close as anyone to breaking the Lions’ seven-month unbeaten run at Exploria, producing a trademark display of full-throttle attacking play that had them ahead 3-1 after 69 minutes.
Yet even a 3.9 expected-goals performance could not bag them a positive road result.
“What I know is, we did a really good game over there,” recalled Nancy last week, “and yes, the last 20 minutes, 15 minutes, we were not able to keep the rhythm of the game.”
The ‘Cardiac Cats’ stunned Nancy & Co. with a fierce flurry of three goals in the final stages, two of them off set pieces, the final one arriving deep into injury time as their home faithful erupted. A strong contender for most entertaining game of the season, the 4-3 Lions win hinged on a hydration break in which Pareja rallied his troops after star winger Facundo Torres had cut the deficit to 3-2.
“'We have 15 minutes and we're going to give all we have. We can do it. We're not going to tie it, we're going to win it,’” Pareja later said of his message to the squad. “I felt that energy from them.”
The set-piece edge
It wasn’t the first time OCSC inflicted late magic on the Crew. The Ohioans took a 2-0 lead into halftime of the reverse fixture, back in May at Lower.com Field, then leaked two goals after the break, the second a dramatic injury-time equalizer by rookie sensation Duncan McGuire in the immediate aftermath of, yes, a set piece.
“Yeah, I mean, it's hard to forget games like those, for sure,” said Columbus’ homegrown central midfielder Aidan Morris last week. “Especially when you put together such a great 80 minutes of soccer and then it falls through at the end … It’s definitely in the back of our heads.”
Box defending in general, and free kicks in particular, have been the Crew’s Achilles heel. Their ability to resolve it seems quite likely to determine where and when their season ends.
“There are a lot of goals on set pieces, we know that,” said Nancy. “But this is not the story. What I want is, when we've got to get set pieces, we have to be confident and embrace this challenge. But I don't want them to shake because we conceded goals last time that we played them.
“As a coach, it's a difficult task and it's been painful at a certain moment,” he later added of a process he calls “the infinite game, because all the time, depending the new picture, depending the new game, I need to use another tool to help them to understand and to show them how we can be better on this topic. This is the idea.”
Conversely, restarts offer a sort of cheat code for Orlando, a way to counterbalance Columbus’ comfort in possession and reliable chance creation, a weapon even when forced to defend for long stretches. Maybe even more so amid the tight margins of a one-game Conference Semifinal.
“It’s a very important piece of the game,” said Pareja. “Plays where the game stops and you have limited time to concentrate in those places, and we're trying to be effective on the ones where we need to be charged, right? The group of coaches here, they are very proactive in the way they work with the boys, and sometimes it just gives us a lot of joy, seeing plays where we are very productive. We really respect a lot that game, that phase of set plays is really relevant for the games in these times, more than before.”
Will the substantial break of the FIFA international window provide more time for his staff to cook up or fine-tune set pieces? Or does it allow a bit of rust to creep into established routines?
“Obviously there's a bunch of space now between the last game that we played in and this next game,” OCSC’s Martín Ojeda told the club’s website last week. “But that just allows us the ability to focus on each and every detail, focus on keeping our defense solidified and then focus on improving our finishing and converting those chances that we get in the next round.”
The Crew’s xG numbers suggest they create a volume of scoring chances in away games essentially unmatched in MLS and are spearheaded by the in-form Cucho. Orlando have been nigh unbeatable at home for months, built around Gallese, a resolute back four and tenacious double pivot.
Something’s got to give this weekend.