The 2010 MLS Cup Playoffs started last night at Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Colorado as the Rapids talisman Pablo Mastroeni bagged his first career playoff goal in the 24th minute. But the story last night was not Mastroeni, or even Conor Casey or Omar Cummings. Rather the true story is the lack of defensive shape in the Columbus Crew.
The game's lone goal is a prime example of what was wrong with Columbus last night. The crew were certainly missing Gino Padula at left back, with Shawn Francis stepping in and leaving a big hold behind him. Omar Cummings was eating up the space again with his almost patented inside-out run, cutting from the middle of the pitch to the outside where the Colorado midfield was able to pick him out. Cummings then runs to the end line and side foots a cross toward the near post which Conor Casey smartly dummies allowing Mastroeni's late run into the penalty area to result in the goal.
In the whole play, only Chad Marshall was acting the way he should, although a tip of the hat to Brian Carroll for trying to make up for everyone else's error. Casey's run from the top of the penalty area to the near post was properly covered by Marshall. But Frankie Hejduk failed to shift into the middle of the area to deny the space to Mastroeni.
The whole evening was a display of poor defensive work by the Crew. Marshall had a solid game, but Andy Iro was in and out of touch with the game. On the goal, the Crew's Francis chased back because Iro did not move out to pressure the ball, a fundamental error in defending a 4-4-2 when one of the two goes wide behind the left back. Players are taught from an early age (or at least I was) that if you are beaten, collapse back to the goal and penalty area and let a centerback take on the pressure. Chasing (unless you are Marvell Wynne) is not going to get you back into position and might lead to a stupid foul in a dangerous area. When Cummings moved inside out, Francis was often directed by Iro to chase, you could see it time and time again and in that case, the normally solid Iro put Francis in a bad position.
Colorado for their part was making life very hard on the Crew's defensive shape. Wells Thompson and Brian Mullan were constantly shifting sides and put a great deal of pressure on the Crew's back line and deep lying midfielders. Fullbacks Kosuke Kimura and Anthony Wallace were clearly given free reign by coach Gary Smith to move forward and so the pitch was pulled very wide and Crew's midfielders and full backs were regularly sucked out of position and shape, leaving those holes for Cummings to exploit.
Cummings was, understandably, exploiting the Crew left back. But it will remain to be seen what happens next week when the tie travels back to Columbus. Casey and Cummings, by far the best striker tandem in the league,paired with Jeff Lawrentowicz and Mastroni really make Colorado's 4-4-2 work. Smith may need to look at a tactical tweak next week, but it won't have to be much.
Colorado is in the driver's seat and their win, while far from certain, definitely looks possible.