Match analysis: NYRB and Columbus Crew

Photo by Howie Pollard

The Union are marching toward the playoffs again.

After a summer of “close, but no cigar” matches, the Boys in Blue are suddenly 3rd in the East thanks to a road result in Harrison, NJ and a short-handed thumping of Columbus at home.

Red Bulls

When Bob Bradley called the Union a “Red Bull team” after the Boys’ 3-3 draw in the City of Angels in March of 2020, he was being both descriptive and derisive. The Union employ a gegenpressing style made famous by the vertically integrated Red Bull organization, and since exported to the ports of Chester, Liverpool, and elsewhere. It’s not fancy, but requires the kind of stamina and diligence that few groups possess – it’s blue collar, lunch pail, and hard-working, if you will.

When the Union face off against an actual Red Bull team, the result is exactly what one might expect of two clubs whose entire ethos is to create chaos: chaotic chaos.

Wednesday’s game was so jumbled in fact that, on the night, neither team created anything worth calling a good chance. Take away Sergio Santos’s pin-balled sitter, which was more “butt fumble” than “beautiful game,” and even adding both team’s expected goal numbers wouldn’t have resulted in a single full tally.

Since chaos was the theme of the night, and because this is the Match Analysis after all, it’s worth looking at where each team lost possession (with Red Bull going left to right in reddish orange and the Union right to left in bluish blue).

The Union caused 35 turnovers on the night (to 24 of their own) with the majority of these changes in ownership happening in their own half.

This is noteworthy because the Good Guys’s press is markedly different this year: they’re content to win the ball much deeper in their own end than what their go-for-broke style allegedly dictates. Given the departure of Brendan Aaronson and the slower pace of the players replacing him, it makes sense – there just isn’t anyone with quite the same skill set to step in. Instead, the Union might engage a team near that side’s goal a bit during a match as a change of pace, but often their actual line of engagement is 30 or 40 yards further, sometimes more.

The team still create turnovers from situations like these, and can thusly lie in wait and spring on the counter. It’s what they did against Red Bull and in fact is precisely the manner in which they scored a back-breaking second goal against Columbus on Sunday.

Columbus Crew

The modern game of soccer is one of transitions, turnovers turned into opportunities, turned into goals – chaos, as mentioned above, is the way to create space these days, like tiki-taka and Route 1 before it. This is popular because breaking down a bunkered defense is nearly impossible for every team in the world, no matter how talented.

As mentioned, last year the Union’s preferred method was forcing turnovers as close to their opponent’s goal as possible – the closer to the goal, the quicker the scoring opportunity arose. It prevented a bunker because teams had to spread out in order to break the Union down in the first place.

This year, teams have adapted and addressed this shortcoming by playing odd numbers of defenders in the back line. This change not only blunts the effectiveness of a 2-man attacking group like the Union use, but also limits how aggressive an opponent’s outside backs can be by adding a half a player in that wide space and using dedicated wide players higher up the pitch. This simply forces the Union to stay in their shape, putting them on the back foot everywhere but especially in the attacking third.

This change does however come with a shortcoming, when the Union are disciplined: they have a numbers advantage everywhere else, especially in the middle of the field.

Columbus’s 3-4-3 was built to draw the Union out of this advantage and their narrow diamond, and at the beginning of this clip it’s about to work: the Crew have players wider than the Union on both sides of the field with reinforcements coming to shore up the middle. If the Union don’t win this ball, Columbus will spray a pass out to the wing and fill in the gaps behind the ball, forcing the Union back into their own half (and Jim Curtin is adamant about the team staying with 35 yards or so of one another).

A great recovery from Leon Flach coupled with a timely step by Jakob Glesnes was enough to dispossess the advancing Ohioans however, and because Columbus was stepping into that space and as is the Union’s want – the break was on.

As an aside, Flach was very tidy on the night in place of the suspended Jose Martinez. According to, Flach led the defensive effort that forced Columbus’s attacking line to end the night with similar performance numbers to that of to Kai Wager, the Union’s lowest rated player – who also happened to be sent off. Not bad.

Credit the timeless Alejandro Bedoya for not only giving Flach an outlet, but then marauding more than half the field with the ball at his feet, coming central to create space on the wing, hitting Kacper Pryzbylko with a pass (one that looked really close to being offside on the review), and then sneaking over the back shoulders of two lackadaisical Crew defenders to get to the spot and slot home the dagger.

No one would have been surprised had the captain simply kept running after his tally straight to the locker room, subbing himself out. He earned the respite with that effort.


There is no free lunch in Major League Soccer, and certainly no easy wins. The Union got results last week in two matches the numbers say they probably shouldn’t have – they’re good right now, hard to score against, and also a bit lucky.

That formula, by the way, is the same one that earned them the Shield last year. Go figure.


  1. Nice analysis and I always appreciate your writing, Chris.

  2. This kind of run was always in the cards for the Union, and thats why I was never too upset when they were down in the standings. I don’t think this team is as good as last years, and the Union certainly aren’t favorites to win the cup. But we could easily make some noise in the playoffs and if the balls bounce the right way, who knows?

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      The Union outperformed their expected goal numbers last year and have underperformed them this year. All that said, there’s a mean in there they can regress to either way, which is precisely your point: good, but maybe not great yet.

  3. OneManWolfpack says:

    Great analysis love the article. Thanks! Hoping the Union can continue the upward trend and get that home playoff game. MLS playoffs are a total crap shoot, so who knows what could happen.

  4. Not directly related but Monteiro came in at halftime for Cape Verde with Liberia up 1-0 on a deflected goal at the end of stoppage time.

    • And Monteiro ties the game! (picked up a loose ball after a cross and from about 14 yards out put it in the back of the net)

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