The Columbus Crew won an instant classic against Atlanta United last Thursday. Their reward? A clash with the reigning MVP and an NYCFC team that will want to undo the mistakes of a short-lived 2017 postseason.
David Villa and NYCFC visit MAPFRE Stadium on Tuesday night in what should be an emotionally-charged match for fans in Columbus. With owner Anthony Precourt expected to be in attendance in the aftermath of the team’s relocation discussion, the atmosphere will certainly be a unique one, even for MLS playoff matches.
That will matter little for an NYCFC team that has plenty of motivation themselves after squandering their first playoff run with a 7-0 aggregate beatdown against Toronto FC last year. Now a year wiser and much more solid in the defense, Patrick Vieira’s side will look to put fresh legs to good use against the Crew in Tuesday’s opener.
Here’s a closer look at Tuesday’s match:
NYCFC toppled the Crew, 3-2, earlier in the year before narrowly avoiding falling into the knockout round with a 2-2 draw between the two teams to close the season.
Players to Watch
CREW: Ola Kamara
In two games against NYCFC this season, Kamara has provided a pair of goals. The forward, who scored 18 goals, was held largely quiet against Atlanta United in the knockout round, but getting him involved early and often will be vital to keeping NYCFC honest and creating those chances and half-chances that he seemed to finish all through the regular season.
NYCFC: Maxi Moralez
You know about David Villa and you know about Jack Harrison, but Moralez is that vital third piece that makes the NYCFC attack hum. Playing a bit deeper, Moralez’s play in the midfield is generally the key to connecting the defensive side to Villa and, once the ball is at Villa’s feet, who knows what can happen.
Matchup to Watc
Alexander Ring and Yangel Herrera vs. Federico Higuain
Both teams possess very talented defensive midfield units. For the Crew, the duo of Wil Trapp and Artur remain a very talented deep-lying duo that has the ability to win the ball and cycle it forward quickly.
But NYCFC’s defensive midfield duo may just be the best in the league, and they’ll have their work cut out for them. Alexander Ring may have quietly been the best acquisition made for the 2017 season as he instantly plugged a gap and played a vital part of NYCFC’s surge. Yangel Herrera, meanwhile, is a budding star, one that will no doubt play at a very high level at some point in his career.
Those two will be tasked with taking Federico Higuain out of the game while helping control a midfield that should be an interesting battleground. If Ring and Herrera can boss the game, NYCFC will be in a good spot.
CREW: Zack Steffen
How do you follow that up? After putting in the performance of a lifetime against Atlanta United, Steffen will need to be big once again if the Crew are to have a chance against a NYCFC team that will come at him and the defense from plenty of different angles.
NYCFC: Alexander Callens
Callens has been an absolute rock for NYCFC throughout the season, starting each and every one of the team’s 34 games. Last season, NYCFC’s naivety left their defense exposed. Don’t expect that gung-ho approach this season, but NYCFC will need Callens and Fredric Brillant to absorb pressure against a tough Crew team.
Thus far, the knockout round has been littered with largely tentative matchups. Tuesday could very well feature more of the same, although both teams do have the firepower necessary to light up the scoreboard.
After last season’s battering at the hands of TFC, expect Patrick Vieira to be a bit more pragmatic with his approach. Still, the idea of an away goal is an enticing one, so NYCFC does have motivation to attack in search of that precious early advantage. That involves getting Maxi Moralez involved and on the ball, allowing him to bring Jack Harrison, Rodney Wallace and David Villa into the game and into open spaces.
For the Crew, it’s about not losing the series in the first 90 minutes. There will no doubt be some tired legs following the end-to-end thriller against Atlanta United, and it’s going to be tough to feel 100 percent following 120 minutes of ridiculous soccer. They’ll have to be compact and efficient to navigate against an NYCFC team that should look to stretch the field and make the Crew run throughout.
Knowing that, expect NYCFC to be the aggressor in pursuit of an away goal or two that could put a strangle-hold on the series heading back to the Bronx.