Crew beat the Revs in the midfield battle

The Crew did a good job of quieting Lee Nguyen on Saturday. (Photo: Kari Heistad)

The Columbus Crew came into Gillette Stadium Saturday night with a plan and it worked. The Crew packed the midfield with a tight, but fluid, 4-2-3-1 (4-3-2-1) formation and forced the New England Revolution to play over the midfield instead of through it. The end result of the game was a sour 0-0 draw where entertainment and creativity were light and industry and positioning were at a premium.

“Columbus made it tough for us,” said Revolution midfielder Benny Feilhaber after the game. “They’re a good team defensively. I think they might be even better away from home than at home because they play perfect away football because they counter perfectly and play well defensively.”

Feilhaber got off to slow start this year for the Revolution, but there is little doubt he’s the ball-player in the team’s midfield. He came into the game off of his best performance in Revolution jersey (one goal and an assist against the Chicago Fire).

Saturday Feilhaber played as the facilitator at the top of a 4-4-2 (4-4-1-1, if you’re picky) midfield diamond with Shalrie Joseph hanging behind him making sure Eddie Gavin and Milovan Mirosevic didn’t find space on the counter for the Crew. With Fernando Cardenas, a tricky winger with good ball skills, but a lack of true pace, on the right side of the midfield and Lee Nguyen playing as an inverted winger on the left, also a tricky winger, the Revolution set up to play through the middle of the midfield. Columbus knew that and stopped it.

“[Columbus] came in and pushed everyone in. They knew they were going to clog the middle because that’s what we do,” said Revolution coach Jay Heaps after the game, summing up the midfield battle.

Saer Sene played as the roaming second forward who got out wide and found space and Pepe Moreno (he was replaced at half-time by Blake Brettschneider) started the game as the target player in front of Sene. The Revolution wanted to get the ball forward quickly on the wings with Sene drifting out wide, vacating space for either Feilhaber or Nguyen to run into. It worked right away with a chance inside the first minute for Feilhaber. But Columbus quickly locked down the midfield with Tony Tchani and the impressive Kevan George doing a lot of the dirty work.

With so many bodies in the middle of the field it was important for New England to expose the wings to create space and chances. To do that, the Revolution needed smarter runs from its full-backs Kevin Alston and Chris Tierney.

Alston seemed the more likely to get forward with his pace, but his positioning and desire to run centrally from his right back position played into the Crew’s game plan. There was more than one occasion when Alston could have run outside and given either Cardenas or Kelyn Rowe, who came on in the second half and played as another inverted winger cutting in from the right onto his stronger left-foot, space to operate centrally. Instead, Alston either stuck deeper because of the threat of Eddie Gaven jumping into the space or Justin Meram countering on that flank, or Alston decided to run more centrally, running right where Columbus wanted him to.

Tierney on the other wing struggled to get too far forward. He usually gives New England the telling cross in games. Instead he stayed back and offered support to Nguyen instead of getting out ahead of him and filling the empty space. Tierney looked more interested in staying back and sticking to his defensive duties.

All the clogging in the midfield killed New England’s passing game. The Revolution ran out of space and options and this lead to a sub 70 percent passing game. The Crew on the other hand completed close to 78 percent of their passes.

“We had some good chances, but we gave the ball away too easily – and that’s what really cost us,” said Heaps, summing up New England’s poor passing on the night.

New England needs to find a way to get more width in its play when it comes up against teams like Columbus and the Houston Dynamo, otherwise its going to be a tight battle in the center of the midfield and the Revolution will become predictable. Tierney’s left-foot and Alston’s pace outside should provide the width and create space for their teammates, but they need to get in the game more.

Impressive Kevan George

George won only one tackle in the game, but he provided five interceptions, six recoveries and three vital clearances all in the Columbus penalty area.

“I thought their 37, Kevan George, had a pretty solid night. He’s a rookie, he ate up space,” said Heaps after the game.

Tony Tchani keeping it simple

While George was impressive in clogging the passing lanes, Tchani was the player who slowed the game down for Columbus and allowed it to regain its shape and composure on the ball. Tchani played on the right side of the midfield three and completed 46 of his 55 passes, only Chris Tierney of New England completed more passes, 48, than Tchani, but Tierney also had 23 unsuccessful passes to Tchani’s nine (Mirosevic completed the same number, but had 16 unsuccessful passes).

Lee Nguyen went missing

Nguyen has been a revelation for the Revolution. New England has typically played well when Nguyen is beating defenders on the dribble and creating havoc on the left-wing. Against Columbus Nguyen was on the periphery of the game. He had zero successful dribbles and no through balls. If opponents can contain Nguyen like that then they’ll have a better than average chance of getting a point from the Revolution.

Kelyn Rowe, super-sub

Rowe has found himself in and out of the starting XI, even the game-day 18, so far this season. The rookie out of Cal has struggled with fitness issues at times and sometimes can look a bit short of ideas if he isn’t playing well. But Heaps seems to have found the perfect role for him: super-sub. When Rowe came on for New England he changed the dimension of the game and gave the back four an outlet player other than Nguyen and Feilhaber in the midfield. When the Revolution run out of ideas, Rowe offers another creative player who can pass and dribble past opponents, and he can be the perfect super-sub while he continues to grow as a player.

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About Kevin Koczwara

Kevin was one of the co-founders of The Soccer Guys, and contributes to Worcester Magazine, KCKRS.com, and an assistant editor for The Red Letter: An LFC Boston Blog. He has been featured on MLSSoccer.com, The Classical and NESN.com. He is a member of the North American Soccer Reporters and has been covering the New England Revolution since 2010. Follow him on Twitter: @kkoczwara