The reaction to Saturday night's 2-2 draw on the road at Real Salt Lake has been quite mixed from Columbus Crew SC fans. There has been everything from anger and disgust that the Black & Gold did not get three points, to praise for twice rallying and coming away with something.
The hot days of summer are beginning to make things a little hazy, but here are some of my thoughts after the weekend's action.
Why we should be pleased
For months Crew SC could not find ways to succeed on the road, and could not find ways to dig out of holes. Now, twice in one week, the squad has conceded the first goal and still come away with points. On Saturday, it did it away from home, and although it wasn't a great performance, it was as engaged as any road effort this season. Those are good things.
Why we should not be pleased
It's great to erase an early deficit, but really good teams don't keep conceding the first goal. And really good teams don't make mistakes like the one that led to RSL's second goal. And really good teams have a killer instinct that lets them put away so-so sides that are playing with 10 men. And a team that many still talk about as one of the better teams in the East shouldn't have to settle for mediocre results and bouncing around the playoff periphery.
Oops, they did it again
Personally, I fall more into the first category — the people that were mostly pleased with the result — but count me among those that are still beating our heads against the wall every time Columbus makes a dumb mistake in the back. Those errors have come in all sorts of forms, but regardless of whether they look different each time or not, they've cost an absurd amount of points. Points that we should remember at the end of the season if the Black & Gold miss out on a more favorable playoff matchup or fall short of the top spot in the East by a handful of points or, GASP, somehow miss the postseason by a small margin.
This week's error — brought to you by everyone's favorite sponsor, miscommunication — came in the form of indecisiveness between Emanuel Pogatetz and goalkeeper Steve Clark on a long ball over the top. It appears to be Clark's mistake, because it looked like Pogatetz was signaling very blatantly for the keeper to take the ball. Maybe he should have shielded off Sebastian Jaime better. Maybe Clark should have been more vocal about how hard Jaime was coming. Maybe Clark should have taken the reins when Pogatetz asked him to and charged harder to clear the ball. Whatever it was, the lack of assertiveness turned into a laughable goofup for the Crew SC back line, and ultimately forced the Black & Gold to settle for a point when it could have had more.
Give credit where credit is due
No matter what your feelings on the result, sometimes you have to tip your cap. While Real Salt Lake's second goal was all Columbus' fault, the Salt Lake side's first strike was a stroke of brilliance. Kudos to RSL for having the ingenuity to write that one up, and then the ability to execute it.
Two misdirections, three first-touch passes. A golf clap for Real Salt Lake.
Is Columbus toughening up?
In many ways it's a false narrative, but after a while it's hard not to lend a little credence to questions of whether the Black & Gold are tough enough. They seemed to wilt in the face of adversity, performing poorly on the road and whenever they were in a hole.
Being tough is admirable, but if you have to tough out every result you're going to be in trouble. Still, it's been encouraging to see the team scrape some things together recently despite facing adversity. In that sense, it was a strong week for Crew SC. Saturday featured a very physical game and one in which there was a lot of up and down the field, but little flow to speak of. For most of the game, Columbus did not influence the match so much as bounce through it.
You can be disconcerted by an inability to come away with three points, but a month ago this team would likely have come away with none in the same situation.
Pipa seems to be rounding into form
I believe I touched on this midweek as well, but it seems that Federico Higuain is beginning to round into form, and that's very good news for the Black & Gold. The ineffectual efforts (whether by his hand or the result of circumstances) that sprung up through some of the first half of the season seem to be fading into the rear-view mirror, and he has more consistently been the Pipa we've come to know, love and expect.
Columbus' second goal featured one of those signature Pipa moments, where he knows before he gets the ball where it needs to go, and then puts it there. His awareness is what gets the ball to Ethan Finlay just in time to scoop the shot bast a rushing Nick Rimando. Even a second's pause by Higuain as the pivot of that play means Rimando gets there. That wasn't his only bright moment of the match, but it was the biggest.
For all the issues that Crew SC has to address, getting everything out of Higuain will be critical.
BONUS THOUGHT: The Starting XI
It's great that Columbus has found a regular starting 11. Consistency is good. Players knowing roles is good. But I'm starting to get worried about an inability to rotate the lineup. Lineup rotation was brought into focus a few weeks ago when it turned into a disastrous week and then minor drama with Pogatetz, but the regular starting 11 has already played a huge percentage of Crew SC's game minutes. What happens when the season is in its stretch run and the dog days of summer are taking their toll and the club's most important players put a lot of miles on their legs early in the year?
There are obviously some depth concerns, but there's also still a sense of mystery about what the depth of this team is or is not. We've seen so few changes that weren't forced by injury or a red card and I have to wonder what that's going to mean down the line, especially considering we don't expect many major changes during this summer transfer window.
Yes, it's important to get points, and those points count the same whether they're earned now or later, but does the roster have enough to last a full, grueling season and postseason?