The 2011 Pioneer Cup began with the first leg at Columbus Crew stadium. In a match that may have been perfect for April Fool’s Day, a red card and a penalty fell to Columbus’ benefit, as they dispatched F.C. Dallas, 2-0.
The Crew played as a rigid 4-2-3-1 squad, an exact clone of that played in their previous match against Red Bull New York. Eddie Gaven and Robbie Rogers were wide players, but maintained organization with Emmanuel Ekpo until the final third.
FC Dallas played a more fluid formation, with Schellas Hyndman’s team playing a 4-1-4-1 alignment while defending. On offense, the wings moved forward, and the team became more 4-1-2-3. The primary changes for Dallas were the reentry of Brek Shea in the back line, Jackson as a box-to-box midfielder, and Fabien Castillo getting his first start as left winger.
Columbus played as the home team in the first half, pushing most of the possession into the Dallas end. They preferred to play along the edges, through Eddie Gaven and Robbie Rogers. Some of the best movement on the field came on the left side of the Columbus attack, where Rich Balchan joined the attack with Dejan Rusmir and Rogers to create space behind Ugo Imelehu. The only trouble was the final third efficiency, where Dallas’ defense was stout in breaking up crosses and generally harassing Emmanuel Ekpo and Andres Mendoza.
Dallas had less possession, but made more of what they earned in the first half. This was especially true on set pieces. Ruben Luna had two shots on goal, one a head deflection off a cross which tested Will Hesmer. Cheap fouls marked the first half play. This manifested in Jackson picking up his second yellow before halftime, and FC Dallas being forced to play with 10 men on the pitch. The first half was scoreless.
Robert Warczyha made an offensive substitution during halftime to apply pressure on an undermanned Dallas bunch. Striker Emilio Renteria came on for Rusmir, who picked up a yellow in the first half and was getting mixed up in the acerbic play. Resulting from this was an offensive-minded 4-4-2 diamond. Dallas’s response to their situation was not a major shape change, but rather to organize deeper in their own half defensively.
The trouble with this was that Dallas’ midfield lacked the box-to-box midfielder from their early posture. The entry of Renteria meant that the backline of Dallas could not be as involved in breaking up central flow. Therefore, Columbus started to find success surging up through the center, and in the 55th minute Ekpo was sent into the area one-on-one with George John. John made some minor contact, and Mendoza converted the ensuing penalty to give Columbus the one-goal lead. A mention must be given to the effort of goalkeeper Kevin Hartman, who got a hand on the penalty shot but couldn’t force it outside the frame.
An interesting dilemma came for Columbus at the point of being ahead 1-0. Warzycha could have opted to reorganize his squad defensively by retreating Mendoza for a holding midfielder (the opposite of the Rusmir/Renteria swap). Instead, he brought on Jeff Cunningham to maintain a two striker attack. The main difference in the setup was a flattening the diamond midfield.
Dallas applied as much pressure as they could muster. They played with three backs for the last thirty minutes, having Jair Benitez move up to play as a wingback. Hyndman then made a couple of interesting moves, bringing off both wingers. Castillo came off for striker Milton Rodriguez, while Chavez made way for Zach Loyd, a defender. Loyd’s entry allowed both Shea and Benitez to play on the left wing. Unfortunately, none of these adjustments could penetrate the Crew as they stacked their midfield.
The Crew’s ambuscade ultimately made them more dangerous than Dallas. Their counterattack culminated in a curling left foot from Gaven outside the 18 for the final tally, 2-0.
The match was never the same after Jackson’s ejection. David Ferreira was a relatively silent member of the team this night, with Kevin Burns and Rusmir doing a stellar job of marking him out of the match. With his playmaking ability squelched, distribution to Ruben Luna and the wingers was stunted. While Dallas had opportunities, they mostly came from set plays and not from open action.
Columbus was impressive in their midfield control, a nice passing regimen that allowed them to enjoy possession throughout the first 60 minutes even before the red card. The bottom line is that the Crew lacked a finishing ability, especially from their striker Mendoza. The decisive score came from a weak penalty on John, and even then Mendoza’s penalty take was average at best.
The question that comes to mind for me: aside from Real Salt Lake and Colorado, is the Western Conference that much better than the East? Dallas is a good team, but Columbus matched them pretty well tonight before the sending off. We’ve seen the Galaxy and Sounders both drop points at home to the Revs and Dynamo, respectively. The season is long, and the cream may still rise, but the second tier in the West hasn’t asserted itself in the early going.