The MLS Cup is always a kaleidoscope for all teams not taking part. Every team sees what they want from the game, some teams will feel closer to the final while others may be ready for a rebuild. If you’re the Quakes, Columbus’ success gives you a blueprint for next season.
LAFC went into Saturday’s game as clear cut favorites over a tough Columbus side. After a great final, the Crew took home the cup and may inspire the Quakes this offseason.
Wilfried Nancy’s side tactically outplayed LAFC, with the attackers able to tear apart LA’s defenders at will. The front line was fluid with the fullbacks constantly opening up the field for the team. Luchi’s system isn’t drastically different from Nancy’s, in fact, the team’s success on Saturday should give the Quakes an idea on how to open up the field next season.
However, perhaps the biggest takeaway the front office should take away from the MLS Cup is the importance of depth. Columbus called on MLS veterans off the bench to impact the game in ways Quakes’ subs haven’t been able to. It may be unrealistic for the Quakes to find Julian Gressel to come off the bench, but there will be plenty of MLS vets they can pick up this offseason.
Given the disappointment of this season, it’s clear that the front office is ready to push this club over the edge. The Crew are one of the best run clubs in MLS, but the Quakes need to learn from them this offseason.
Columbus came into the MLS playoffs as a good side, but clearly behind the big guns of Cincinnati and Orlando. At every point during the postseason, Nancy showed why he is the best manager in MLS.
The Crew controlled games all season, with their average possession percentage towering above the rest of the league. Even in the final, they controlled the game against a star studded LA side. Nancy set up this team to control games by using defensive blocks to allow fluidity in the attack.
In turn, this allowed their offense to produce the most amount of goals in MLS. 67 goals scored in the regular season ranked top in MLS with 15 different players scoring and two scoring ten or more. Cucho’s 16 was the highest for the team, but the team’s offense wasn’t solely dependent on one player.
It’s clear that this Crew side is pretty different from a Quakes side that finished towards the bottom of the league in terms of both possession and goal scored. If the Crew aimed to control games and live through their offense, the Quakes used their defensive prowess to counter.
Perhaps the biggest thing Luchi should take from Nancy’s system is the fluidity that the forwards play with while having fullbacks to back them. Especially in the first half, this interplay between the wider players forced LAFC to spread apart, constantly leaving Crew players open. Even when the LAFC backline was compact, the Crew filled the box with their forwards.
When comparing the two sides, the Quakes’ right side profiles as a partnership that could fit with Nancy. Espinoza cuts in on his left to pull defenders towards him, allowing for Akapo to cover him and provide an outlet. It’s the left side, with Cowell only playing wide, creating a logjam with him and Trauco that doesn’t fit.
Luchi and Nancy don’t have the same tactical setups, but there’s still a decent amount Luchi could learn. If the Quakes are able to find a way to get their left wingers to cut in on their right with the fullbacks providing support.
In their past two MLS playoff appearances, the Crew have won the whole thing. They’re a side who understands how to build a playoff side even if they can have playoff droughts.
Columbus built their team around their system rather than the players. While yes they do have a MVP caliber player in Chucho, the rest of the team was filled out with MLS veterans.
Darlington Nagbe will be remembered as one of the winningest players in MLS history. His presence gives the team a veteran leader who can push the team through crucial playoff moments. Even if he isn’t a typical DP-level player, any team in MLS would empty the bank for him.
Like in any sport, a bench can make or break the best of teams and that was seen in both the playoffs and final. Christian Ramirez is the perfect off the bench poacher and has scored at will in MLS, giving Nancy the flexibility to change styles mid game. Similarly, Kevin Molino has been in MLS for about eight years and hsa contributed to many playoff runs.
However, the best example of roster construction was the midseason acquisition of Julian Gressel. The ultimate swiss army knife, Gressel constantly finds a way to survive and thrive by changing positions and styles. Gressel is the type of player that can change the game when he comes in and rarely makes a mistake, any MLS team that is serious needs a player like him.
To be fair to the Quakes, they do have a talented starting lineup, but a dreadful bench. Players like Kikanović and Marie qualify as good bench pieces, but they play similar roles. What the team really needs off the bench is a real threat like Ramirez or a midfielder who can control the tempo.
As Columbus showed, a deep team full of MLS veterans can push a team past talented sides that have more expensive players. As Quakes fans know, this team isn’t going to spend their way to the top, so they have to be smart about their acquisitions.
Making the playoffs in Luchi’s first season should have been seen as a success for the team, but the front office is clearly not satisfied. Columbus must serve as an example for the Quakes, given the way the team was built and performed. Not every MLS team can add Messi or Vela, so teams like Columbus and San Jose must build teams in smart ways.
Featured image: Columbus Crew