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Stopping the Crew: Three Things to Watch for in MLS Cup

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Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Timbers will travel to Columbus on Thursday for the second time this fall to take on the Columbus Crew. Whereas the Timbers were fighting for their playoff lives when they traveled to Cowtown on September 26th and emerged 2-1 winners, they go to Columbus this week looking to win MLS Cup.

The Crew attack is among the most potent in MLS. As for the top-level statistics, the Crew were tied for MLS with 58 goals-for in 2015. And although the defense struggled mightily through early parts of the season, the Crew backline has benefitted greatly from the addition of Gaston Sauro at centerback alongside Michael Pankhurst.

But behind the Crew’s goalscoring output are a litany of eye-popping offensive statistics. The Crew held the second most possession in MLS (53.84%), fired off the third most passes in MLS (445.76 per game), completed passes at the second highest rate in the league (81.35%), and created the second most chances from open play (320).

So what do the Crew do?

They cross the ball. Often. And effectively.

In 2015, the Crew whipped 675 open-play crosses into the box, good enough for the most in MLS . . . by more than 100. Of those 675 open-play crosses, the Crew completed a league-leading 184, which was good enough for a completion rate of 27.26%, second best in MLS.

The result? Kei Kamara, the Crew’s Best XI number nine, scored 22 goals and finished as runner up for the Golden Boot. Ethan Finlay, the Crew’s Best XI right winger, finished the season with 13 assists, 5th best in MLS. The Crew’s left back, Waylon Francis (who was a popular Best XI pick for fullback-rights activists), was fourth in MLS with 120 crosses and led all fullbacks with seven assists on the season.

As a team? The Crew led the league with 55 goals inside the box, and had the second fewest goals outside the box (3) in MLS.

In other words, the Crew live - and live handsomely - off of sending, completing, and finishing crosses.

Here are three things to watch for as the Timbers try to stop the Crew from crossing their way to a second MLS Cup:

1. How good are the Crew’s crosses?

We’re not talking about the quality of the service here. Rather, the question here is whether the Crew are effectively working their way into good crossing situations.

This is important because depending on the crossing situation, a cross can be somewhere on the spectrum of, on one end, the final pass before a likely goal to, on the other end of the spectrum, a wastefully hopeless end to a spell of possession.

Simply put, as we discussed after the Timbers fired off a dizzying 48 crosses against the Vancouver Whitecaps back in March, not all crosses are created equal. If you have the time, that piece from back in March is a worthwhile review.

The TL;DR version, however, is that when assessing whether a cross is a "good" cross, you have to consider (1) where on the field that cross is coming from; and (2) which phase of the attack the cross comes in. Because we’re shifting the perspective from the Timbers’ attacking crosses to shutting down the Crew’s crosses, however, I am going to add a third (relatively obvious) criterion: the amount of pressure on the cross.

Let’s discuss those three things in order.

First, the position on the field that the cross comes from. In general, crosses from narrower areas (i.e. near or even inside the edge of the eighteen-yard box) are more dangerous while crosses from wider areas are less dangerous. The reason is simple: A cross sent in from farther out on the wing takes longer to reach its target near the goalmouth and, therefore, the defense has more time to react to it.

On the flip side, a cross coming in from a narrower area takes less time to get in front of the goalmouth and is therefore more difficult for the defense to cut out. Crosses coming from narrower areas are especially dangerous when the ball is near the byline. A ball on the byline takes the offside rule out of the play because all attackers are behind the ball. The defense, therefore, has to defend the byline to prevent runners from getting loose at the goalmouth, and, as a result, spaces often open up in the middle of the box for attackers to sit into. Fanendo Adi’s opener in the second leg of the Western Conference Semifinal in Vancouver is a perfect example of this effect.

So, as far as crossing position goes, the Timbers want to push the Crew wide and, in general, away from the byline.

Second, the phase of the attack from which the cross comes. For this purpose, we’re going to separate the phases into early and late. An early cross comes in transition while the attack is pressing forward and the defense isn’t yet set. A late cross comes after the defense is fully set and the attacking team is trying to work combinations to open space.

Early crosses are, perhaps obviously, more dangerous because the defenders in front of goal have to identify and track runners at the same time that they have to attack and win the ball. When a team sends a late cross into the box, on the other hand, the centerbacks should have already identified the attackers that they need to mark and can focus exclusively on winning the ball.

The best early cross a Timber has hit in the last three years was Diego Chara’s 2013 assist to Ryan Johnson against Houston Dynamo. Note that although Chara’s cross is both wide and 20 yards from the byline, and the defense, therefore, has some time react to it, the Dynamo backline can’t cut it out because they aren't set and, because they are attacking the cross running toward their own goal, any play they could make would carry a risk of an own goal. Moreover, because the defenders were preoccupied by Chara and his cross, Johnson was able to walk away from his markers and unnecessarily awkwardly redirect it into the net.

So, as far as the phase of the attack goes, early crosses are generally more dangerous than late crosses, and at times so much so that a cross from an otherwise non-dangerous area can be very dangerous.

The third element is pretty straightforward and doesn’t require much discussion. It is simply the concept that the defense’s application of pressure to a cross makes the ball substantially more difficult to whip in accurately because the crosser has to worry about a harassing defender and, therefore, can’t pick out his spot in the box.

But even if this point is obvious, that doesn’t mean it’s any less important. Or that it is always taken care of by defenses. As D.C. United can tell you from their 5-0 humiliation in the last game of the season in Columbus, even less-than-dangerous crossing situations can cause problems when the crosser has time to pick his head up and pick out the hottest target forward in MLS right now.

In sum, therefore, if the Timbers are consistently forcing the Crew into wide, late, and contested crosses, then they will stand a very good chance of keeping the Crew attack under control. But if the Crew are able to unlock the byline with regularity or get out in the open field in wide areas, the Timbers could be in a lot of trouble.

That really is the difference between good crosses and bad crosses.

2. How sharp are the Timbers’ defensive rotations?

Much has been made of the Timbers change to a single-pivot 4-3-3 since the beginning of October. And not for no reason; the Timbers are 5-0-3 in eight games since shifting to the 4-3-3 as their first-choice tactical setup.

And while the inverted-triangle 4-3-3 in which Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri sit above Diego Chara in midfield has certainly materialized in the attack (Nagbe’s average attacking position was almost identical to Valeri’s), the Timbers have still taken great care to cover Diego Chara in defense. And that’s largely because of Nagbe. Look at the defensive actions map of Chara and Nagbe from Sunday’s second-leg victory in Dallas:

Although Nagbe has a handful of higher actions than Chara, it’s also clear that Darlington regularly flattened out with Chara when the Timbers are in defense to effectively provide a second midfielder on Chara’s level of the formation.

This has largely allayed the defensive concern with the single pivot. Typically in a single pivot, defensive rotations between the winger, defensive midfielder, and fullback happen later in the possession because the six can’t afford to be pulled wide too early for fear of emptying out the middle before he is covered by a recovering attacking central midfielder. But with Nagbe’s impressive defensive commitment, the Timbers against FC Dallas were able to rotate like they were playing with two defensive midfielders, making it harder for Dallas to overload the Timbers' flank and spring Fabian Castillo and Michael Barrios into open spaces.

This will be vital against the Crew.

One of the primary ways Columbus opens spaces from which send in crosses is the Crew love to create overloads on the wing by some combination of pushing a fullback forward early in possession, sending their winger out toward the touchline, cheating Federico Higuain (who, as MLSSoccer’s Matthew Doyle noted a couple weeks back is perhaps the most positionally diverse 10 in MLS) wide to combine with the winger and fullback, or even dropping Kamara between the lines. The Crew, therefore, work themselves into a lot of 3 v 2s on the wing, which allows the Black-and-Gold are ruthlessly effective at working simple combinations to spring either the winger or fullback into space running toward the byline and into a prime crossing position.

And even if the defensive rotations are right, the Crew (and especially Higuain) are expert at quickly switching the play to the other side of the field to see if they can catch a 2 v 1 on the opposite wing if the defensive backside rotations haven’t filled in the hole left by the rotated d-mid.

So on Sunday watch the Timbers rotations. If they’re sharp, the Crew won’t be able to create their numerical advantages on the wing and are going to have to settle for a lot of late, wide, and contested crosses. But if the Timbers’ rotations are slow, expect Columbus to find dangerous spots on the Timbers’ flanks with regularity.

3. Will the Timbers mind the guy on the touchline?

If there is one thing to be said about the Crew’s midfield buildup, it’s that they use space better than anybody in MLS. When they’re not overloading the wing, one of Columbus’s favorite tricks is to pack the middle and sneak one player out to the touchline.

This shouldn’t work.

As long as the defense accounts for the player on the touchline when covering runs, that attack is pretty much bottled up. This is pretty simple stuff.

And yet, over and over, the Crew have caught teams with this.

That latter example at Salt Lake is particularly egregious, as left back Abdoulie Mansally comes up to provide initial (nominal) pressure on Ethan Finlay, but, for reasons beyond explaining, doesn’t track him after Finlay dropped the ball to Mohammed Saied. Mansally must have been thinking that he could pass Finlay’s run to centerback Phanuel Kavita. In so thinking, however Manually didn’t account for Kamara on the touchline, thus putting Kavita into a hopeless 2 v 1 in approximately a million acres of space.

One simple pass released Kamara into enough space that Finlay and Higuain could run into each other and still be in enough green to walk the ball into the net.

Which is to say the Timbers need to mind the guy on the touchline. As long as somebody - preferably either a fullback or winger - is free to rotate to the Crew player on the touchline without setting other runners loose, the Timbers won’t fall victim to the Crew’s apparently invisible-to-some man on the touchline.