Yes, Columbus Crew SC got a point in the standings on Friday night. But for most fans it was more about the lost points — two to be exact — as the Black and Gold took a gut punch from the Chicago Fire with a late stoppage-time goal to force a 2-2 draw.
At times there were great moments for Columbus, but there was also a sense that such a result might be coming. Here are a handful of thoughts from the disappointing letdown.
Bump and run
That was a physical match, and referee Fotis Bazakos did little to rein that in. With Bozakos keeping the whistle in his pocket it seemed like things were beginning to veer in a dangerous direction, or did. Ask Ethan Finlay how he's feeling after Adailton decided to use his shin to clean off his studs. I'm not one to criticize officials, but sometimes you need to blow things down just to maintain control of the game. That didn't happen. The officiating is also no excuse for the result, but it should be no secret that a more physical game does not necessarily benefit Crew SC's style of play.
Columbus' goals were encouraging
You can argue that Columbus needed to put another ball or two into the back of the net, but the two goals it did score were of high quality. The first was the great team play we've come to expect from Gregg Berhalter's group, with a great turn from Justin Meram (it's a move that might be starting to overtake the meat hook as his signature), an outstanding ball through in tight space to Ethan Finlay and Finlay's own signature — unselfishness — to set up a tap-in for Kei Kamara. When Kamara praises his teammates for his success so far, this is what he's talking about — even I thought Finlay should have taken the shot, but his decision proved the right one.
The second goal was also encouraging because it was one we haven't seen often from the Black and Gold — the corner kick variety. There's something special about moving the ball from head to head and right into the back of the net, and Kevan George's flick-on header was a thing of perfection on a well-drawn play. It was also good to see George making a positive contribution. I thought his night was mixed, but that was a bright spot and showcased what his height and athleticism brings.
Well, maybe not. I thought he was OK. Obviously we saw the pros column when he assisted on Kamara's goal, but it was also quite obvious that Mohammed Saeid (and Will Trapp, for that matter) were absent. He's an athletic presence, but his awareness wasn't always great, and there were times his teammates had to spend time either helping him get in the right place or covering for him. He just wasn't there to link with his teammates like the other two aforementioned options are; it was clear a little something was missing. And then there's the issue of the game-tying goal, in which the space behind George was exploited.
We've already seen Chris Klute on a few occasions this season, but it seemed like there was a slightly more discerning eye on him now that there is no more Hernan Grana and, for all intents and purposes, the position at right back is up for grabs. I thought he was impressive here. I expected to see him get the start with the change in the defensive midfield, as he offers more defensive chops than Hector Jimenez does and more experience than Chad Barson. Berhalter saw it the same way (or something else completely). My main concern with Klute this year has been there have been a few times I felt like he got caught up field a bit. This was not an issue on Friday, though he was likely given instructions to remain a bit more defensive due to the midfield question marks. He was impressive defensively. He made 1v1 stops on both David Accam and Shawn Maloney when he stopped them in their tracks. His crosses in the final third sometimes left something to be desired, but overall a good showing.
Continuing trends (kind of)
For the most part, things went according to the script. Columbus is always better at MAPFRE Stadium, and they certainly played more than half the game this way. They came out of the gates very engaged and with a lot of energy — both things severely missing at San Jose. In that way, the home trend continued. They also scored again within the first 15 minutes of the second half. That was the eighth of the team's 17 goals that have been scored during that time period. And Crew SC is still unbeaten at home... even if this result is hard to swallow.
The gut punch
Ugh. It's not the first or last time that the Black and Gold will suffer a stunner, but this one was pretty bad. For a team looking for consistency in a key conference game against a rival, that was not the lasting memory any Columbus supporters wanted.
The first issue is how much pressure Crew SC was under. After the side went up 2-0, it should have been time to put the game away. That didn't happen. Chicago was the better team from there on out. It's normal that a team that is losing will generate a greater amount of pressure late in the game, but elite teams punish the opposition for this. With Columbus' possession-heavy style, it should be able to control and see out games with a two-goal lead. The killer instinct is not yet there.
Then there is the goal itself. This is a grandiose analogy, but it reminded me of the gut punch suffered by the United States against Portugal in the World Cup. Stoppage time? Check. Cross from above the top right corner of the 18-yard box? Check. Too much time on the ball offered to said crosser? Check. Header from the left side into the back of the net? Check. 2-2 final? Check. Heartbreak? Check. The difference is that Eric Gehrig is not Cristiano Ronaldo. While you might want to be cautious with the latter because he might burn you one-on-one, Gehrig offers no such threat. Waylon Francis gave him way too much space and time to get that cross in. And you know the only person who had more of each of those than Gehrig? Jason Johnson, who was on an island in a vast sea of green to head the ball into the net. I'm not sure who's to blame there in a zonal scheme. Johnson finds space in behind George and in front of Parkhurst, but based on the size of that space I'm pretty sure an elephant could have found it. Just a bad defensive play all around, which is something that the Black and Gold seem to be victimized by once or twice a game, and it would happen even more if they didn't control the ball as much as they tend to.
The worst part is there were even more options. Had Gehrig dumped near post, Matt Polster was there unimpeded. Or if he had passed back to the top of the box and the ball had gotten through, it's possible two different Fire players may have gotten a shot off. It was a whole lot of marking of nobody.
In case you need to relive the pain, here's that final goal (and slowed down a little, to prolong the suffering)...
This game should have been one to build some confidence before heading on the road for a stint of matches. Now Crew SC will have to sort things out doing something it has struggled with all season — traveling.