Sweet, sweet victory. This feels so much better than a disappointing road loss just eight days ago, doesn't it? Especially when it comes against the Seattle Sounders, a member of the upper echelon of MLS.
No sport seems to embrace the wild mood swings of week-to-week action, and Columbus Crew SC fans are feeling that in full effect today after sending the Sounders back to Seattle licking their wounds after a 3-2 result. MLS Cup, here we come! Right?
Well, there have been just over 12 hours to make sense of the post-game joy, and here are a handful of observations from last night's match. Agree? Disagree? Have a better take? Share it in the comments below.
That was the definition of bouncing back
Last week was frustration after frustration. Mistakes, momentary lapses that dug the Black and Gold's grave and endless crosses but no end product. Saturday night offered a second straight opportunity for Columbus to make a statement, and this time it did. Seattle is, unarguably, one of the best clubs in the league, yet Crew SC did a good job of — for the most part — having the game played on their terms. The game — combined with the previous week's result — could have turned into proof that Columbus is not quite ready to compete with MLS' proven teams, but instead it became proof that it can. This looked like a team that can beat anyone in the league.
Berhalter sent a message, and it seemed to be received
Head coach Gregg Berhalter clearly did not believe that the performance in D.C. was acceptable, so he sent a message. It appears the message was received. After a poor performance by Justin Meram that saw him subbed off at halftime a week ago, he was one of the best players on the field against Seattle. Conspicuously absent from the entire 18-man squad was Hernan Grana. It's hard to say exactly why the coaching staff made that decision, but it was a sudden one. I have to wonder what the move says about the state of things with the fullback. I have some thoughts on that later...
The point being, the fact that Berhalter is getting positive responses from his players — both the ones subbed off and the ones subbed on — is a good sign that his message is getting through.
Night and day for Meram
Maybe I was particularly harsh on Meram last week, but I didn't think he was very good against D.C. United. He was invisible at times and noticeable at others for the wrong reasons. He had a large role in the second goal conceded. What a difference a week made. While there were a lot of good individual efforts by the Black and Gold, I felt like that of the left wing was among the best one or two. He was involved physically and mentally, was creating chances and had a couple of outstanding passes. He tested the right side of Seattle's defense (the weaker side) just like he needed to. And his turn to start the sequence on Crew SC's final goal was glorious. What we saw against Seattle was close to his best, and getting that on a weekly basis is huge for this team.
Jimenez vs. Grana
Grana has generally been considered a valuable addition to the club this season, but sometimes I get the sense there's a bit of tunnel vision. He is great at bombing down the flank and causing problems and has remained solid defensively, but I'd also say he's a part of the reason for the huge percentage of crosses the team has put in — last week that strategy felt one-dimensional once it proved to be ineffective. It can feel like Grana dominates the ball (the numbers would support this) and I think that can take away from Federico Higuain's ability to impact the game. I can't say if this is why Grana took a seat Saturday, but I thought Hector Jimenez had a very good game, and felt more like a seamless part of the attack, rather than a one-man wrecking crew on the right side. An every-minute starter doesn't generally get sent out of the 18 against one of the elite opponents in the league, so it feels like a message was being sent — whether a tactical one or something else behind the scenes we don't see. I could be off on that, but it's interesting enough to bear watching.
The offside rules confuse a lot of people
In the end it didn't matter, but the Sounders' second goal created quite the kerfuffle. Off a shot from Obafemi Martins, Clint Dempsey poached the close rebound into the back of the net, all while everyone else on the field was a good five yards behind them. Crew SC fans were up in arms that the goal should have been disallowed for offsides, but the official's flag was never raised. What happened? Martins was onside when the ball was chipped over the top by Gonzalo Pineda. Dempsey appeared offside. One could argue that the positioning of an offside Dempsey affected the initial play and it should have been whistled down, but it's a weak argument and Steve Clark made the save.
There in lies the rub: Clark's stop was ruled a deliberate play on the ball, thereby nullifying Dempsey's original offside position and allowing him to play the ball. And the referee stated afterward that Dempsey was even with the ball on Martins' shot (you can watch the replay and decide for yourself), thereby keeping him onside on the second portion of the play. But that's a lot of parts and a lot of decisions and a lot of reasons for onlookers to consider the call controversial. Try explaining all that to an average fan, when folks who have been watching the game a long time still had to pause to figure out why (or why not) the call was right. Offside remains one of the most basic yet confusing rules in the game. FIFA's recent changes haven't helped.
Defensive mistakes are still worrisome
Forget all the talk above about the controversial offside call. The real problem? When you watch the play, nobody in black is reacting at all. Everyone had stopped playing. Clearly Columbus expected a whistle, and when it didn't come the price was paid. One of the basic rules you teach kids in every sport is that you always play to the whistle. Had any member of Crew SC kept battling, they may have been able to close down on the play enough to disrupt Dempsey by the time the rebound came to him. But that never happened.
Another rule of defending 101? Don't lose track of the best player on the field. Whether you think that's Dempsey or not, he's one of the best 2-3 players on the field for either side. You have to account for him, and for a brief moment on Seattle's first goal the Black and Gold did not. Mohammed Saeid (otherwise very good) was a step slow in reacting to the pass, and the back line was giving the Sounder striker too much space — something the U.S. international does not need much of to score. Needless to say, he did just that.
I don't expect a flawless season. There are too many humans involved in this sport to expect perfection, but there needs to be better week-to-week consistency (against good teams). You cannot make basic mistakes against good teams. Despite those mistakes, Columbus still manged to get three points, but in the long run those things will bite you more often than not. There's definitely enough quality on the roster to iron those issues out, but for two weeks in a row there have been some glaring errors.