Everything was coming up smelling like roses. Columbus was unbeaten in four matches, had two straight wins, was scoring goals in bunches and generally building positive momentum. Then came Saturday night. There was no question a trip to take on east-leading D.C. United was going to be a challenge, but a 2-0 loss undoubtedly harshed everyone's buzz. Here are six things the match had me thinking about.
D.C. United is pretty good
They looked like the real deal on Saturday. They're not flashy, but they are very organized defensively and played their game perfectly — frustrate and then stick the dagger in on the counter and set pieces. They'll need to get some more consistent offense to be a Cup contender, but they will be right there in the race for the East playing Ben Olsen's pragmatic brand of soccer. United is starting to get healthy too, so the fact the team survived the first two months shorthanded means they're going to be tough to unseat.
Steve Clark will want to forget about that one
Let's suffice it to say that it was not Clark's best night in Black and Gold. On D.C.'s second goal he charged and challenged on a ball in an area that was too congested. Would he have been able to stop Sean Franklin's header had he stayed on the line? It's hard to say, but that doesn't change the fact he was at least partially to blame on that goal. There were at least two other occasions on a cross into the box where he came out but didn't handle the ball well.
Justin Meram must have had the same pregame meal as Clark
Much like his goalkeeper, Meram never seemed quite settled. I thought it was astute coaching from Gregg Berhalter to change the left wing off at the half, because he seemed a step off in the first 45 minutes. The D.C. television commentators said they were surprised by the move because they thought Meram played well, but they must have been watching a different game than me. He didn't seem engaged with his runs and missed an early chance at the top of the box when he could have slipped the ball to the middle for Federico Higuain to have a golden opportunity.
Then there was the first goal, for which I place a good portion of the blame on Meram. It was a tough counter off a Columbus corner kick, but it was Meram's ill-advised attempt at a header just outside the box that saw United off to the races. Despite the fact there was little behind him to defend he made a half-attempt at a 50-50 ball, was squarely beaten, and all the Black and Gold could do was chase after that.
Buildup was good, the end product was not
A 2-0 loss is disappointing. The way the goals were scored was frustrating. But there were still good things that happened, mainly in the Columbus buildup. Although they weren't finishing them, there were plenty of chances for the Black and Gold and some quality buildup. Everything that defines the Crew SC attack was there — possession, efficient passing, shots — it's just that the end product wasn't there. Only three of 14 shots were on goal, and 64% of the shots came from outside the box. Part of that has to do with the D.C. defense, but that's not going to cut it.
Bad set-piece defense reared its ugly head
The Black and Gold are going to have to defend much better than that on set pieces. I've watched the replay of United's second goal — a Franklin header off a Fabian Espindola corner — and I still don't know where to point the finger (other than multiple places). Obviously Clark's challenge that was not much of a challenge stands out, but the defenders do not seem to be on the same page.
For the most part, Columbus seems to be defending zonally. Except that from the second the corner kick begins, Waylon Francis marks Chris Pontius as he dives down toward the six-yard box. Hernan Grana, Emanuel Pogatetz, Tony Tchani and Kei Kamara all seem to hold their ground and body up against the attacker in their area. Michael Parkhurst is by himself in front of goal and is basically a statue.
So was this zonal marking with a man assigned to mark Pontius, who is an aerial threat? Was this Francis making a mistake and possibly leaving a dead zone for Franklin to take advantage of? Was it Parkhurst positioned poorly and/or ball-watching so he doesn't see Franklin charging in? Whatever it was, there was no one on the back post and no one who was the slightest bit concerned with Franklin or the wide-open zone on the back post.
Two weeks does not a season make
After some draws on the road and some romps at MAPFRE Stadium, Columbus seemed to be gaining steam. Optimism was through the roof. It turns out that smoking some poor (especially defensively) teams isn't a real great indicator of where a team stands. The trip to D.C. was a wake-up call, or at least a little pinch on the wrist to keep Crew fans grounded. Against a much better team the Black and Gold attack struggled with the same issue it faced early in the season — failing to capitalize on its offensive opportunities. There were also a few gaffes that you just don't see elite teams making. Then again, one week does not define a season either and there is still plenty of reason to believe that Columbus is one of the better teams in the east. It's just that there's some work to do.
So what do we take away from the performance? You're encouraged to share your own thoughts and continue the discussion in the comments section below.