Nerwinski - Higuain - Columbus

VANCOUVER, BC – Two of Major League Soccer’s early conference leaders will go head-to-head on Saturday afternoon when Vancouver Whitecaps FC pay visit to Columbus Crew SC at Mapfre Stadium (12 p.m. PT kickoff on CTV and TSN 1040 radio).

And it has the makings of a good one.

Through four matches, Columbus are the co-Eastern Conference leaders with 10 points and an unbeaten 3W-0L-1D record, while Whitecaps FC are tied with Sporting Kansas City for the top spot in the Western Conference thanks to a 2W-1L-1D record.

Vancouver and Columbus, in fact, have been two of the league’s best teams since their respective coaches, Carl Robinson and Gregg Berhalter, took over in 2014. Columbus has the fifth highest point total during that timeframe and Vancouver the seventh.

Coincidentally, Robinson and Berhalter both called it quits on their playing careers following the 2011 MLS season before joining the coaching ranks. They have followed similar paths to get to this point, and have produced similar results as MLS head coaches, as you can see below.

<strong>55W-49L-36D (201 points)</strong>
<strong>56W-47L-37D (205 points)</strong>

Four points.

That’s what separates the two teams over four plus MLS seasons. Their records are almost uncanny. Although Columbus has a slight edge, the ‘Caps have never lost to the Ohio outfit during Robinson’s tenure as head coach (2W-0L-2D). Interestingly, both Vancouver’s wins came in Columbus.

So, there’s your setup.

But that’s just one of many different layers to this matchup. Of course, there’s Kei Kamara’s return to Columbus, where he began his MLS career in 2006 and returned for a second stint in 2015, finishing as the league’s joint top-scorer and a finalist for MVP.

There’s also a potential return to action for Costa Rican centre back Kendall Waston, who missed Saturday’s match vs. LA Galaxy due to international duty but will be available for selection after having his red card vs. Atlanta rescinded.

To me, however, the most intriguing aspect of this game is the tactical battle.

Columbus is a team that loves playing out of the back. They are committed to starting their attack through short passes deep in their own end, starting with goalkeeper Zack Steffen. Case in point: Steffen is averaging the second most successful passes (25.67) and third most touches (47.67) per match among goalkeepers in MLS this season.

What Columbus will often do is send fullbacks Milton Valenzuela and Harrison Afful high and wide to spread the pitch and drop either Will Trapp or Artur between centre backs Lalas Abubakar and Jonathan Mensah to collect the ball.

You can see all of the above play out in the following GIF.

Ultimately, it’s attacking midfielder Federico Higuain who makes the team tick offensively – the Argentine is tied for the league lead with 13 chances created so far this season. But he usually does his damage further up the pitch. The likes of Steffen, Trapp, Artur, and the entire back line will typically be equally if not more involved in the initial build-up to their opportunities.

So what does all this mean for Vancouver?

The ‘Caps have a decision to make when it comes to how they’re going to approach this game. Do they stick to what’s been successful for them on the road over the last few years – sitting deep, dropping numbers behind the ball, and then striking the open space in the opposition’s half on the counter?

Or, do they deploy a higher press and attempt to force turnovers in the attacking third since they know Columbus will always try to pass the ball out of tight spaces, even if they’re under significant pressure?

New England took the latter approach in this past weekend’s match against New York City FC, another team that loves playing out of the back, and it helped them create a number of opportunities in a 2-2 draw. But as’s Calen Carr and Andrew Wiebe broke down, it also came back to bite them at times.

The danger with pressing high up the field is that if the opponent manages to “break” the press and penetrate the initial line of pressure, they will more than likely have numbers going the other way. And that’s where they can really hurt you.  

Which tactic will Robinson and his staff deploy? Find out on Saturday at 12 p.m. PT.