A lot has been made of the strategy the Columbus Crew employed this season in its three games against the Red Bulls. Though the Crew excelled during the regular season playing a possession game while using Kei Kamara as a target striker, the one time they beat the Red Bulls the Crew played a more direct game and played the ball over the top of the Red Bulls defense.
The Red Bulls, with two weeks to prepare for their Eastern Conference Final series against the Crew, don’t know what game plan to expect, so they’re preparing for both possibilities.
“The first time we played them we were able to press, get turnovers, obviously (Mike) Grella scored that great goal off a turnover,” goalkeeper Luis Robles recalled. “Then the second game, in Columbus, they switched it up, they played very direct, whether it was (goalkeeper Steve) Clark straight to Kamara or their center backs straight to Kamara.”
Their first meeting on March 28 in Columbus, Ohio, in the Red Bulls third game of the season, a Bradley Wright-Phillips penalty kick and a goal by the Crew’s Tony Tchani, both in the second half, had the game tied, 1-1. Grella, who had just entered the game, picked up a loose ball in the 67th minute in the Crew end of the field and took a quick look at goal.
Seeing Clark off his line a bit too far, Grella floated his shot over the goalkeeper’s head and into the net for his first career Major League Soccer goal and the Red Bulls’ 1,000th in franchise history. The Red Bulls held on and won, 2-1.
In their second meeting, July 4th in Columbus, the Crew caught the Red Bulls by surprise. Two long balls out of the back found Kamara, who fed midfielder Ethan Finlay for two goals and a 2-1 victory.
The third game, Oct. 3 at Red Bull Arena, was more like the first game, and goals by Lloyd Sam and Wright-Phillips produced a 2-1 victory.
“We’ll prepare for the things they tried to do against us, which is playing out of the back, then they’ve tried playing long, they’ve tried switching the ball to the other side of the field,” Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said. “They’re all things that we know and prepared for in the past. We’ll refresh and prepare for (them) again and make sure that in all ways know what kind of adjustments they’ll make, but for sure we’re going in there to play the way we want to play, at the pace we want to play.
“The three games we played against them this year I thought were all really good games and we’ll be ready for a really tough series and, from every level, another good two good soccer games. We’re excited.”
Robles also expects the Red Bulls will adjust to whatever style the Crew plays.
“When we look at the last round of the playoffs, D.C. was the perfect team because on the fly in the game we had to make adjustments,” he said. “Using that experience is something we can carry over into this game.
“Whether they decide to play possession out of the back or they play direct, I’m very comfortable with the people in front of me, and I know that they’re comfortable with making those decisions and whatever adjustments need to be made. Whether it’s from the bench or on the field, I know that we have the right personnel to do it.”
Midfielder Dax McCarty said he respects a team like the Crew, which can match most teams in ball skill and passing but can also adjust their game to a different style and still come out on top.
“They’re a very good team. I have a lot of respect for the way they play and the way that they do things,” McCarty said. “They have a set style of play that their head coach preaches they play no matter what. The only time I‘ve seen them switch up their style was obviously against us in the second game where they played a little bit more direct than they ever played.
“We’ve seen that, tactically, they’re flexible, and obviously with a guy like Kamara, he offers them a lot of options to have a target guy to play through if their short passing game isn’t working. We just have to see how they play. We don’t know until they step on the field but we’re preparing for anything.
“Certainly we have video of playing them twice where they tried to play through us and video of them playing direct, so we’re going to be able to watch that and we’re going to be able to handle it no matter what.”
Either way, McCarty is just looking forward to a game that will bring out the best in the Red Bulls. He admits they were off their offensive game in the conference semifinals against D.C. United because of the way D.C. wanted to play the game.
“What it comes down to is us and how we play and how we press and how sharp we are in the final third,” he said. “Those are the things that have made us good all year. It’s a tough matchup for us, a lot different than D.C. United. There’s going to be a lot more football played, the ball’s going to be on the ground a lot more, and that will benefit us.
“We weren’t very sharp in the last series, but that was because our mentality was to match D.C.’s physicality, match the edge they were going to bring to the series. We know Columbus is a team that likes to play the ball on the ground a bit more. That will be good for us. That will give us the confidence we need to be able to play out of the back as well.”
Asked if he learned anything new about the Crew off their conference semifinal series victory over the Montreal Impact, McCarty said he did.
“They showed a little bit more toughness than they had in the season,” he said. “They were down a goal and obviously, getting that game, they had it in their grasp, and then Montreal gets an equalizer. They showed they have some mental toughness and they’ve learned a lot from the past. In the first round, the series they had last year against New England, they were out of it right from the beginning.
“They’re a team that’s gotten better defensively, that’s kind of been a knock on them all season in that they’ve given up soft goals, but we’ve seen that they’ve gotten stronger as the year’s gone on defensively. They’re conceding less goals and they’re still just as dangerous as they always have been in the attack.
“We have to make sure that if we want to break them down and score goals that we’re sharp in the attacking third. We need to play much better than we did in the D.C. series because we know that if we don’t punish Columbus when we get chances, they certainly have the capability of punishing us.”