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Know Your Enemy: Columbus Crew – Meeting the First; Part Two – Game Film Review and Points of Interest

Continuing the preview of TFC's upcoming opponent, the Columbus Crew SC, with a review of the game film for strengths and weakness, and a few points of interest

If Pipa's on the ball, Be afraid, be very afraid.
If Pipa's on the ball, Be afraid, be very afraid.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Part One, examining Columbus' lineup and form, was posted earlier.

Fresh off an encouraging opening day win, Toronto hits the road once more for a tricky match against Trillium Cup rivals, the Columbus Crew.

The Tactics

Much like last week, when Toronto had to contend with the potentially-dominant Pedro Morales in the middle of the pitch, they must confront a similar South American-sytle concern with Federico Higuain roaming thereabouts for the Crew.

While not the same player, Higuain's average position tends to shade closer to goal than Morales, he will poise the same challenge – a need to wrestle control of the midfield and dictate the flow of play through the centre of the park.

With a penchant for showy chipped finishes, Higuain is the sort of player that both Michael Bradley and Benoit Cheyrou will have to keep a close eye on throughout the match. He was a touch more emphatic than his usual feathered-self against Houston on Saturday, smashing a shot from the top of the box when allowed too much time, only for his effort to carom off the underside of the bar in the 71st minute, sparing Tyler Deric's hard-earned clean-sheet a dirtying.

There was another move from Saturday's match that further emphasizes the need to maintain shape and spacing in that oft-overlooked top of the box area. Many teams have a tendency to ball-watch when under pressure, dropping too deep and opening up a corridor across the top of the box. Houston did that very thing in the 65th minute, but were Columbus barred from taking the lead seconds before Giles Barnes' eventual opener by a strong save from Deric.

Higuain begins the play with one of those effortless cross-field switches to find Hernan Grana in space on the right. Forced on the back foot, the Dynamo collapse with the trio of forward runners, dropping as deep as the penalty spot. Grana, recognizing the corridor and facing a modicum of pressure, sends his cross curling along the top of the box where the late-arriving Kristin Steindorsson appears at the back-side of the arc for a driven right-footer, guided low and against the grain to the right-side of goal:

Houston had one extra defender attempting to clog the aforementioned corridor – Luis Garrido was strolling thereabouts – but the change in demeanour from both he and centre-back Raul Rodriguez at seeing the hopeful ball land at the feet of Steindorsson is late evidence of the threat. As if that were not enough, Higuain was lurking, ready to make a late run on the inside had Grana's ball been aimed shorter, leaving Leonel Miranda – the trailing defender – a choice of poisons.

One more noteworthy aspect of that play, the third runner pushing towards goal that forced all the Dynamo defenders back, was Tony Tchani, making a surging run from very deep, advancing past more attack-minded players Higuain and Steindorsson to open those gaps for them to utilize.

By limiting the time and space provided to Higuain – advice that could be termed 'mind the gaps', and thereby harming his creativity, Toronto can force Columbus into more predictable wide positions.

Not that that will solve all problems.

Higuain is one aspect of their attack, a central one, no doubt, but just one piece. And hardly the most mobile one at that.

What accentuates his threat is the willing runners with which Gregg Berhalter has surrounded him. Watching Columbus play Houston, what stood out most was not Higuain, but the free movement of the other three attacking pieces, the two wide-midfielders and the centre-forward.

With Ethan Finaly on the right, Steindorsson (or Meram, looking to Saturday) on the left, and Kei Kamara up top, Higuain has three players that will cover ground for him, dragging defenders away from the Argentine maestro.

Berhalter gives those three a lot of latitude in their positioning. They can cut in-field to tuck narrow and get on the ball, they can stretch wide and high to make the field of play bigger. There were even a few occasions where Finlay would completely abandon his flank and crisscross over to the other side with a lung-busting diagonal run, if the mood so struck.

Add to that a very mobile forward in Kamara, who is more than willing to drift wide, either to get on the ball in space or drag defenders out of place, thus opening up channels for the rest; such unselfish play. Of course, when he does that it leaves Columbus without a real target in the middle, which is why those late runs are even more important.

Look back to the play above – when Grana get on the ball, Kamara is the widest of the three attackers, playing off the back-shoulders of the centre-backs and having gotten goal-side of the Houston right-back, Kofi Sarkodie.

A single cross over the mass of players to the back-side can expose a ball-watching group of defenders - something like this driven cross from Finlay that found Kamara at the start of the second half:

Fortunately, Kamara did not have his scoring head on that match, later wasting a clean look from a free-kick in the waning moments as he guided his header wide of the post.

The instruction here to TFC is to either prevent those chances from occurring in the first place by pressing the ball or limit Columbus' ability to get on the end of them with tight marking; both are easier said than done.

One final point on the tactics come Saturday.

Astute observers of Part One will have noticed how bizarrely high the full-backs are placed on the starting lineup diagram, in line with the defensive midfielders. In truth, they could have been placed even higher, as the Crew SC outside-backs are on near-permanent overlap, at least when Columbus has the ball.

The traditional role of the modern full-back – that is a weird sentence – is to provide defensive cover behind a wide midfielder and then overlap when that midfielder runs into congestion, giving them a passing option or dragging a defender off to open up space.

Columbus has taken that concept to a new level with the full-backs moving up field as a matter of fact, forcing the opposition's wide defenders to lay off, thus presenting time to the carrier and space to move in-field and make plays. It a premature overlap, intended to force the desired response.

Toronto will have to be aware of the potential for being outnumbered as a result and be committed to tracking back – this is not a match for laziness – while maintaining their shape throughout – one cannot let a match get too stretched, at least in the defensive half, against Columbus.

That said, such a strategy from the Crew (SC) is not without its own inherent risks.


Continuing on from that bizarre full-back positioning, Columbus is very open to be counterattacked when caught in possession.

Drafting two defenders into high attacking positions before the ball is safely into the opponent's half, especially when combined with a high line – as Toronto saw themselves against Vancouver – is a recipe for disaster.

Further complicating such a situation, again much like for Toronto, Columbus lacks for pace in the centre of defense, with neither Michael Parkhurst, nor Emmanuel Pogatetz known for their recovery speed.

High pressing from the likes of Jozy Altidore, Jonathan Osorio, and Robbie Findley, or clogging up passing lanes slightly deeper and forcing interceptions from Cheyrou and Bradley, could allow TFC to catch the Crew in that forward leaning posture, thus creating vast lanes to attack the Columbus goal.

The earlier that pressure is applied the better. In working the ball out of the back, Columbus has a tendency to spread their centre-backs very wide – an effort to amends for the lack of width with the full-backs so advanced, further exaggerating the clear route to goal down the middle.

Of course, Berhalter is aware of this risk, and a pair of deep midfielders in Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani (or in Saturday's case, whoever replaces the suspended Tchani) are meant to mediate this concern, but again, as Toronto knows from their own frailties, midfielders are not wide defenders and balls into wide spaces for speedy attackers to chase, getting behind the turning centre-backs, is a recipe for danger.

One play from Saturday in Houston exemplifies how open Columbus is to a counterattack.

At the end of the first half, the Crew SC had a corner kick. Houston won the header, then eluded the first two challenges and Ricardo Clark was off to the races, surging from his own end to the Columbus box virtually unfettered:

Steindorsson did a good job tracking Clark and a gaggle of other defenders raced back to limit his potential passing options – the chance eventually fizzled out wide a weak and tired shot – but the threat of a team that gets from one end to the other quickly remains.

With limited video to analyze, Columbus were nowhere near as accommodating with preseason footage as Vancouver was, a look at the game-winner from Saturday must suffice. Thankfully, it ties a lot of what has been discussed into one passage.

The play begins with Tchani on the ball in the centre-circle, confronted by two Dynamo players, he tries to force a pass that Clark blocks – note how wide the centre-backs are split, on opposite sides of the screen; it is Trapp that confronts the first pass, having dropped deeper in-between with Tchani on the ball.

A pass out wide forces Tchani to cover, Waylon Francis is still retreating from his advanced full-back position. Miranda eventually loses out to the combined pressure of three Crew players, but not before a glimpse of that space created in the middle with Tchani wide is given.

The loose ball falls to Higuain, who tries to hit an early outlet pass to Kamara wide on the attacking left, but Raul Rodriguez, a Dynamo centre-back, reads it and easily cuts it out, befoe sending the ball forward to Kofi Sarkodie hugging that right touchline.

Francis, still recovering his head and position after getting back into a defensive mindset is faced with two attackers and Tchani is a little slow in getting back over to provide cover once more in the scramble of a turnover, allowing Sarkodie to shimmy inside between the two of them. Meanwhile, Barnes is able to curl his run across Parkhurst to get on the end of a low ball to the high near-post, smashing his first-time right-footer high into the net past a frozen Steve Clark in goal:

Part of the reason Barnes is able to find that space and Sarkodie is able to get inside to pick the pass is the ludicrously wide spacing of the Columbus back-line, a remnant of their attacking formation, having been forced to scramble back to defensive posture.

That goal was body blow to Columbus, who had bossed much of the match – recall that low Steindorsson drive came just seconds before and Kamara's header about a dozen minutes earlier. The Crew SC were knocking, but it was the Dynamo who were able to leverage their opponent's tactics into a goal.

Points of Interest

Last Meeting August 9, 2014    Columbus 2: Toronto 3

The two last met in the finale of last season's Trillium Cup on August 9 with the trophy already decided, as TFC had won both earlier meetings, by scorelines of 0-2 in Columbus and 3-2 at home.

Gilberto would open the scoring before half-time, collecting a pass from Luke Moore down the left-channel and beating Clark with a low-drive to the bottom right-corner of goal. Only for Columbus to level in stoppage-time from the penalty spot through Higuain, after a corner kick was redirected by Tchani and struck, apparently, the arm of Justin Morrow.

Osorio would reinstate the lead in the 59th minute, pouncing on the rebound after a denied Moore shot and pushing it over the line, despite shades of offside.

Columbus would fight back again with Meram re-equalizing in the 81st minute of play when his curling cross from wide on the left found its way through the crowd and eluded Joe Bendik, sneaking in untouched at the back-post.

Stung, but not willing to relent, Toronto would spare their keeper's blushes three minutes later when Moore, who collected assists one the first two goals, got on the end of a Collen Warner corner kick, forcing his header across the line to win the match in spectacular fashion.

Over the years, the clubs have met 22 times, with Columbus winning ten, double Toronto's five, and drawing the remaining seven fixtures.

Twelve of those matches have been played in Ohio, where the Crew SC have won seven, TFC three, and played out a pair of draws.

Toronto have won the last two in Columbus – both last season – snapping what had been a three-match home winning streak from the Crew SC.

As one of those manufactured rivalries, the Trillium Cup has been largely dominated by the team in yellow, who have won all but two of the seven renditions since its inauguration in 2008. In sweeping last year's series, Toronto regained the cup for the first time in three seasons, having won in 2011 as well. With both sides challenging for the upper spots in the East, expect this year's edition to have a little more bit to it than some of the past encounters.

Apparently, according to the good people over at Massive Report, MAPFRE Stadium has some seriously good food, so any travelling Toronto fans may want to bring an appetite.