One game. That's all it took for Columbus Crew SC to shock the MLS system.
They went into BMO Field, where they dominated and defeated defending champions Toronto FC, 2-0. For reference, TFC lost only once at home in the regular season and once in the postseason last year. A team generally shouldn’t overreact to the first game of the season – it’s a sample size of one – but every team around MLS should watch the game on repeat (or just read this article).
Columbus might well have created the template for how to beat the team that returns much of the roster that completed the best season in league history.
It was a masterful plan from Crew SC manager Gregg "Triple G" Berhalter. He drew up the perfect game plan to go to the champs and get three points. But what, exactly, did Columbus do so well? And what should other teams replicate against Toronto's Big Three & Co.?
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Defend High, then Low
Every time Toronto tried to build from the back, Columbus started with a low defensive line. Gyasi Zardes began his posture a few yards in front of the center circle on Toronto’s defensive half. More importantly, when Toronto made a pass from center defender to center defender, Zardes would use the time the ball took to travel and run to pressure.
Behind Zardes, Pedro Santos, Cristian Martinez, and Pipa Higuain stepped to the closest passing options – generally Michael Bradley or the other backs. The pressure accomplished two things: First, Crew SC didn’t let Toronto grow comfortable on the ball. I won’t go as far to say that it unsettled TFC, but it didn’t allow them the nonchalant touches and easy passes that help players build confidence. Giovinco is hard enough to stop in the flow of a game; he’s nearly impossible to control when he’s confident.
Second, Columbus blocked the lanes to Toronto's outside backs, funnelling the passes to the center. I wouldn’t have thought this would be an effective game plan, considering Toronto have a central combination of Bradley, Victor Vazquez, Ager Aketxe, and Jonathan Osorio – but sure enough, Berhalter picked the right (non-)poison. In discussion with Matt Doyle, he noted Toronto finds a lot of their penetration down the wide areas, and if you can block the wide areas, they tend to run out of ideas down the middle.
On the occasions that Toronto did successfully break the pressure to advance the ball, Columbus didn’t panic. They simply dropped their back four to the top of the box and kept Toronto in front of them, buying time for the midfield to drop and help them in a low block. At times, Zardes was the highest player in the defensive block, standing below his own center circle. Whenever Toronto broke the original high lines, Columbus forfeited pressure on the ball and dropped to cover the danger zones. Giovinco, Vazquez, and Jozy Altidore will always be dangerous, but if you can cover the most dangerous areas, at least they are doing filthy things in the areas that hurt you the least.
IN SUMMARY: Start the pressure high, funnel Toronto toward the middle, and if the Reds do break the pressure, drop into a low black, don’t rush to pressure the ball, and cover the danger zones.
In transition, send the runners behind
When Columbus won the ball, they didn’t overthink their attack. They sent Zardes, Martinez, and Santos directly toward goal. All three players had a simple job: run straight, try to find the gaps between Toronto’s center backs, and look for the pass. Whoever was on the ball, then, had a clear job of trying to deliver the pass (of course it helps to have a guy like Higuain on the ball).
I don’t want anyone to think this was a “direct’ or “counter attacking” style from Columbus, though. Crew SC didn’t just lump it forward with abandonment. Rather, it focused on intelligent recognition of the moment. Teams are most vulnerable in transition. If you let Toronto get Chris Mavinga, Eriq Zavaleta, and Bradley settled into shape, they are tough to break down. But since all three of those players like to find space and angles when Toronto has the ball, they are vulnerable in the few moments after Toronto loses the ball.
You can almost imagine Berhalter’s final words in the locker room: “When we win the ball, take your chances; don’t overthink it; go for it.” Simple. Brilliant.
IN SUMMARY: Try to play out of the back and combine once Toronto get into shape, but recognize the transition moments and go straight for goal when the opportunity presents itself.
It will be tough for any team to match up mano a mano with Toronto. It’ll take some ingenuity. Teams around MLS might have Gregg Berhalter to thank for saving them some work.