Perhaps no club in Major League Soccer is as synonymous with a playing identity as the New York Red Bulls are with playing a high press. That the team has reaffirmed its belief in the tactic is commendable (and perhaps maybe questionable in the middle of a hot August).

In this case, it creates an intriguing coaching decision for Columbus Crew head coach Caleb Porter.

On one hand, the Crew enters Red Bull Arena on Wednesday night as the reigning MLS Cup champions. While the Black & Gold are currently amid a losing streak, they’ve proven their ability to pass through opponents and build possession from the back.

If the Red Bulls high press Columbus, and the Crew backline is able to get the ball into the middle block, the league’s best passer – Darlington Nagbe – could be waiting. From there, they can spring Lucas Zelaryán or Gyasi Zardes free and quickly outnumber the home side. This is one approach.

Another approach is going “Route One” and hoofing the ball over the midfield altogether.

Want to press our backline? Well, then we can play ball over the midfield and challenge your backline.

This is a tactic that’s worked for the Crew, particularly in the inaugural Field opener against the New England Revolution. Then, long balls played from Vito Wormgoor directly led to counter-attacking goals for Columbus in the 2-2 draw.

Why this matters now – particularly against New York – is that captain Jonathan Mensah enters the midweek match having produced seven clearances in his previous appearance. So far in 2021, Mensah has had six league matches with at least seven clearances. The Crew has a 3-1-2 record during those games.

Add that stat to Mensah’s league-leading 52 headed clearances and 21 blocks, and suddenly the Red Bulls are faced with two problems:

1.    If they continue to high press, and the Crew pass through their lines, the Black & Gold have lethal finishers closing in on the NYRB backline.

2.    If the Crew plays direct, Mensah’s clearance statistics reiterate how quickly Columbus can unleash counterattacks.

How both teams opt to play tactically remains to be seen, but the Black & Gold have proven their ability to play different ways to produce positive results. While that hasn’t been on display in the short term, it’s been a consistent theme for Columbus – almost like the club’s identity.

The New York Red Bulls will probably high press the Crew on Wednesday night, but how Columbus responds should have more impact on the match than what the home side can dictate themselves.

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