An hour before the second leg of Toronto FC's Eastern Conference semifinal series, the Red Bulls released their starting XI. It was an unusual one for the visitors – only two center backs instead of their usual three, a pair of true forwards instead of their usual solo striker, and one fewer defensive midfielder than is typical.
I took a guess at what the lineup actually was (RBNY, as many teams do these days, put out purposefully opaque lineup announcements that do not provide the actual formation, and yes this is intentional and yes in the halls of MLS it's seen as an "every little edge matters" type of move. And yes, I hate it). So did others. A reversion to the RalfBall 4-2-2-2? Pure 3-5-2 with Sacha Kljestan as the 10 beneath two strikers? Surely it wasn't their typical 3-3-3-1 with Bradley Wright-Phillips in midfield?
Nope. It was something totally unexpected: a 4-4-2 diamond. And what's more, it was a 4-4-2 diamond with regular right wingback Tyler Adams at the front point, nominally as the No 10. RBNY hadn't played that formation with Adams in that position all year, or last year. It was a gamble and a risk.
Adams was superb on the day, connecting a bunch of passes and setting up one of RBNY's best looks. But what really mattered in the 1-0 win (which wasn't enough to get the visitors past TFC) wasn't what Adams did in the attacking half of the field. Rather, it's that he was an energetic and destructive defensive presence pushed higher than normal, right into Michael Bradley's neighborhood.
The point of the risk Jesse Marsch took wasn't to try to throw a brand new formation at the Reds and say "haha, tricked you!" Instead, it was to put relentless defensive pressure into the Toronto engine room in an attempt to blow up the well-oiled machine that had banged in 74 goals on the year. If you first limit a team's ability to actually move the ball upfield and into the attack, then you will limit the effectiveness of the attack itself.
Marsch's gambit was very successful. The 1-0 loss was just TFC's second of the season across all comps, and was the first time they'd been shut out in five months. Bradley had just 50 touches, his lowest number on the season, and even when he got on the ball, he didn't do much good with it:
With RBNY selling out so hard to contain Bradley, TFC never found a Plan B for shuttling the ball from back to front. Marky Delgado didn't drop deep enough (it maybe wouldn't have mattered since his passing was off all game anyway), and the center backs were reluctant to try to play through the lines. Add in the loss of target forward Jozy Altidore thanks to a red card at halftime, and that's the recipe for an entirely disjointed Toronto team.
Which is basically what I think Columbus should be doing to the Reds in Tuesday's first leg of the Eastern Conference Championship (8 pm ET; ESPN & ESPN Deportes in the US | TSN 1/3/4/5 & TVAS in Canada). Crew SC are a good team that have been playing good, inspired soccer over the last three months, and they've done so by mostly sticking to their typical gameplan no matter the opponent or venue. But I really do think that they should tinker a little bit. Toronto are too good not to.
So for the Massive, this is the job: In order to create, first they have to destroy.
That means they have to figure out how to deny service to Bradley. Playmaker Federico Higuain would be the natural choice, but his value comes from his ability to roam and find space all over the pitch, and that's such an integral part of how Columbus launch into the attack that it's maybe not worth tethering him to a specific location or role. And while Higuain works hard defensively, he's nowhere near the presence that Adams was.
All-energy box-to-box type Artur, however, is. He was the best player on the field in Crew SC's Knockout Round game at Atlanta United, then arguably held the same distinction a few days later in their 4-1 win over NYCFC. He covers a ton of ground, has good instincts and hunts the ball well.
I just don't know how to work him into that role without either A) betting too hard on a formation shift, or B) leaving deep-central midfield exposed. RBNY made their gamble because they were in what looked like and then turned out to be an insurmountable hole. Columbus currently aren't, and if Gregg Berhalter futzes too much with the formation right from the start, it risks sending the wrong message to the team and undermining their recent confidence.
Still, you can't let Bradley start to control the geometry of the game. But at the same time, if you push Artur too high up the field and keep Higuain in the playmaker's role, and let the wingers attack as they always do, then you leave Wil Trapp alone as a No. 6. Trapp has had a very good second half of 2017, but he's still much better with the ball than without it:
The other risk here is obvious: Toronto could very well do the same thing to Trapp that RBNY did to Bradley. Trapp is just as important to every Crew SC build as Bradley is to TFC's, and since I'd expect the Reds to be playing with a 5-4-1 (I think Jonathan Osorio will start up next to Victor Vazquez, with Delgado dropped deeper almost alongside Bradley, leaving Tosaint Ricketts as a lone forward) they'll have a spare midfielder to just sit and make Trapp's life hell.
That would mean, of course, a deep-lying, reactive type of gameplan for the Reds, and a lot of Ricketts going 1-v-2 or 1-v-3 into space – but they're actually quite comfortable with that. Back in May they played Crew SC without either Altidore or Sebastian Giovinco, they managed just 11 shots and 36 percent possession... and they won 5-0. Ricketts was great:
Of course, if you're TFC, you have to be at least a little bit worried about defending in that 5-4-1 since doing that means 1) you'll be inviting a very good attacking team forward quite often, and 2) you'll be giving up a lot of set pieces to a team that does real work on restarts. There's no "this one tactical decision trumps all others" type of move to make for either manager, and that means this entire preview could end up being moot – strategies, tactics, formations are all adjustable, you know?
So the only thing I'd wager on is that this series is going to be won or lost in the engine room. Teams have struggled doing that against the Reds this year, but RBNY laid out a blueprint two weeks ago, and Columbus have the personnel to approximate it. They've got more than just a puncher's chance to pull off the upset in this series.