Columbus and New England finished the season as the hottest teams in MLS. They will open their Eastern Conference semifinal on Saturday afternoon with plenty still to prove, though.
Matt Sullivan/Getty Images
Form and momentum are fungible qualities heading into the MLS postseason. Example after example shows those qualities do not always translate from the final whistle of the regular season to the opening foray in the playoffs.
If they do matter in this particular year, then Columbus and New England stand to benefit handsomely from the way they ended the season. The only problem for the two form teams in MLS right now: They play each other in the Eastern Conference semifinal poised to start at Crew Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Article continues below ...
It is yet another chance to bask in the contrast between a Crew outfit intent on keeping the ball and a Revolution side predicated on breaking quickly after winning it and combining deftly in the attacking half. The dynamic between the disparate approaches led to three tight meetings during the regular season.
“I think it says a lot (about the teams),” Revolution coach Jay Heaps said earlier this week. “We have different ways of playing, but I think we match up pretty similarly. It will be a challenge. It’s always great playing a team of their caliber. It’ll be a great test.”
Most of the tension will unfold in the center of the park as both sides attempt to tip the balance in their favor. Columbus will expect to dictate terms with Wil Trapp distributing from deep, Tony Tchani linking the play and Federico Higuain slinking between the lines to find room. The trio often allows the Crew to establish dominion over the ball, but they must figure out a way to cope with Jermaine Jones’ relentless roving and Lee Nguyen’s penchant for closing down intelligently and then playing quickly to exploit space.
"It’s two teams that have surprised some teams this year and have a really good core, right down the middle when you talk about the central defense and the center midfielders," Crew winger Ethan Finlay told the club’s official website. "We’ve had guys step up for our team and they’ve had the same thing with Lee Nguyen and Kelyn Rowe, guys who haven’t had as big of a role before playing a bigger role on their team. I think the same thing [applies] to our team. It’s going to be a great match-up and good soccer."
The outcome here hinges on fine margins: a mistimed challenge here, a stellar free kick or a moment of brilliance there. Both teams keenly grasp the need for diligence as they attempt to translate their recent runs into a critical first-leg result at Crew Stadium.
“Columbus is an excellent team, a well-coached team,” Heaps said. “They’ve finished the exact same way as we did. We’ve both played each other. We’ve both taken games from each other. It’s a big matchup. I think it’s going to be tight. I think it’s going to be one or two plays that make the difference.”
Columbus’ reliable work in midfield — the Crew tied with LA Galaxy for highest passing accuracy this season (83 percent, per Opta statistics) — leaves New England with some issues to ponder.
1.Who will New England field in its central midfield trio?: There are two certainties and one conundrum to solve. The balance is best with Scott Caldwell holding behind Jermaine Jones and Lee Nguyen. Caldwell sits reliably and sweeps in front of the back four. Daigo Kobayashi offers a more ambitious alternative because his presence forces Jones to operate as a rather expansive sort of shield for the rearguard. The smart money is on Caldwell (Kobayashi exited after 45 minutes at Crew Stadium in September as the Revs were getting overrun in midfield), but there are options available if Heaps wants to push the game.
2. Columbus relies on its core to dictate games: Heaps must select ever so carefully because the Crew trio of Higuain, Tchani and Trapp continue to thrive in the center of the park. Trapp provides the touchstone from a holding role, but his ability to play the ball over distance allows the Crew to switch the field reliably. Tchani’s improved play over the course of the season supplements those efforts. Higuain scampers around to link everything together and play through the lines. It is a group operating on all cylinders right now.
3. Can Lee Nguyen put himself in the right spots?: Nguyen will start his work by closing down Trapp often and trying to win the ball in good areas. His continual improvement in his defensive duties yields results in the attacking third. It also allows him to pick up the ball in unorthodox areas to attack the defense and combine neatly with others. Everything starts with that relentless industry and pressure, though. He must maintain that commitment in order to locate the necessary space around Columbus’ formidable central group.
4. Concentration is the key for both teams defensively: Columbus finds itself in trouble when its fullbacks — particularly Waylon Francis on the left — push too earnestly into the attack. Those gaps can prove particularly fruitful for a Revolution outfit particularly adroit at recognizing the landscape and using the space afforded effectively. New England faces a rather more incremental problem: The back four occasionally drops its attention for a split second to allow the opposition to play through too easily. If the Revs can cut out those lapses, then they will stand a much better chance of holding out with their generally solid shape.
5. Arrieta or Schoenfeld up front?: Columbus coach Gregg Berhalter isn’t tipping his hand about his options to fill the lone forward berth in his 4-2-3-1 setup. Arrieta looms as the likely winner given his ability to stretch defenses over the top (it should create space in possession, after all), but Schoenfeld provides a useful option with his aerial prowess and his tendency to hold the play up well enough. The best part for Berhalter as he reaches his conclusion: Either player can provide a different look from the bench if necessary.