New York City FC face off against the reigning MLS Cup champions the Columbus Crew this weekend. Here are the Keys to the Match, presented by Tri-State Ford.
Set Piece Threat
The 2020 season was a successful one for Columbus Crew as they won MLS Cup. A significant factor behind that success was the team's stern defence. Only one team – the Philadelphia Union – conceded fewer goals than The Crew during the 2020 regular season.
One avenue that NYCFC could look to exploit, however, is set pieces. As Orri Benatar explained during this week’s edition of The Away End:
“The last three goals Columbus have conceded came from a set play chance.”
Toronto FC’s first goal comes due to an inability to clear the ball from the penalty area. That same problem presented itself again in the 53rd minute and forced Darlington Nagbe to clear a shot from Omar Gonzalez off the line. Toronto’s second goal came via a free-kick towards the back post.
This past weekend, against the New England Revolution, The Crew almost conceded after 6 minutes from a corner when Brandon Bye’s near-post run was not tracked.
When The Crew did eventually concede, it came via a set piece. New England took a quick free-kick, and that appeared to catch Columbus out. The ball was played in behind down the right, and Revs striker Adam Buksa made an intelligent run on the blindside of Jonathan Mensah to convert the cross.
The positives here are two-fold. Firstly, Taty Castellanos has made similar runs on the blindside of defenders this season. Secondly, NYCFC have mustered seven goals via set pieces this campaign – including five in one game against FC Cincinnati.
Ronny Deila credited Rob Vartughian as the man responsible for the team’s success from free-kicks and corners.
“We are spending a lot of time on it,” Deila said after the game against FC Cincinnati. “We have Rob, who does the set plays. He has a lot of experience. He spends hours every week preparing the team on and off the pitch. To get five, I don’t think that’s happened before; it’s maybe a little bit too much, but it’s not a coincidence.”
Vartughian will undoubtedly have been hard at work on the training field this week, and those small details could prove vital in overcoming The Crew on Saturday.
Rested and Ready
The Columbus Crew have had a difficult start to the season. They are currently 11th in the Eastern Conference, with only one win from their opening five games.
A lot of their struggle can be attributed to the team’s busy schedule; Columbus played nine games in 38 days.
Heading into Saturday, they will have had their first real rest period of the season, and that will present New York City FC with a refreshed opponent.
Ronny Deila has emphasized the need for diligent preparation and a foundation of hard work for this team, and that will be vital in ensuring they attack this game with the same vigor as previous weeks.
Stop the Cross
Just as we highlighted set pieces and crosses as a potential route to threaten Columbus, NYCFC will need to be wary of conceding crosses to The Crew.
Gyasi Zardes has been a fantastic signing for Columbus. The forward has recorded double-figure goal tallies in all three of his seasons with The Crew. That is largely down to his positional intelligence and reading of the game.
The other key factor behind his success rests in how Caleb Porter structures The Crew’s build-up. Zardes is most effective when being efficient with his touches. That could be connecting with a cross, a touch and shot, etc. Porter knows this and prefers his team to attack from wide, and they will often seek to build up the play down the flanks rather than through the middle.
Their full-backs will try to support the attack and find Zardes free in the box. The other major threat Columbus have in the final third is Lucas Zelarayan. The playmaker can create chances, but his biggest strengths so far in MLS have been his goal-getting and his dribbling ability.
He will likely seek to support those creative efforts down the flanks or move into the box to pick up loose balls and connect with crosses.
NYCFC must operate with a two-pronged response. Those players out wide must stop the crosses at source, while center-backs will need to mark Zardes tightly and make sure he cannot find free space.
New York City FC are back in action against Columbus Crew at Red Bull Arena on Saturday, May 22 with kickoff taking place at 7:30 p.m. ET (YES Network/NYCFC.com/Radio).