Each and every week of the last month has seen the hopefulness drain from the faces of Columbus Crew SC supporters. If it's not one thing, it's another, and things have begun to steamroll into a frustrating five-game winless stretch. The most recent installment was a 2-1 loss to the Montreal Impact on Saturday at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus.
Where did things go wrong? I share some of my reactions below. You can share yours in the comment section at the bottom of the page.
Math is not my strong suit. I don't know what a statistician would need to officially dub something a "trend." But I do know that Columbus is sliding further and further into something worrisome. Yes, there is a long way to go in 2015, but things have officially moved from a small sample size of random occurrences that led to losses — red cards, half-cocked lineups, a moment of bad luck — into something that is a problematic trend.
Crew SC is now winless in five (i.e., since that oh-so-promising victory over Seattle Sounders). It has lost every single game in which it conceded the first goal. A closer look reveals other troubling themes — CCSC has has won just one game in which it has scored less than three goals (against 10-man Toronto) and it has not won a one-goal contest. Those are not just month-long trends, they are season-long ones.
What we're seeing is becoming more clear. The Black & Gold have shown the ability to out-score opponents, but on nights when out-scoring isn't going to happen, they struggle. They make enough defensive gaffes to drop close games and don't deal with the pressure well, twice giving up late goals.
In recent weeks the one thing that Columbus did well early in the year — possession — hasn't come as easily or effectively. Crew SC has given up more possession than it should against teams that don't tend to hold the ball all that well. A look at American Soccer Analysis' P-Score rankings (which quantifies proactive and reactive team styles) shows Columbus had a major drop in P-Score in the last month, and while that doesn't necessarily mean bad results, it has coincided with them for this team. What it does mean is that the side has become more direct and less of what Gregg Berhalter wants (which is very proactive). Whether that's the result of being forced out of their game when losing or something that's actually causing the negative results, it's obvious that something has changed over the last month, and it's not just an unlucky bounce or two.
Against Philadelphia, there were chances early that Crew SC did not capitalize on and things eventually fell apart. Columbus had its chances against Montreal as well. The Black & Gold out-shot the Impact 20-9, but were incredibly inefficient. Eleven of those shots were not even on target and five were blocked. Even after a first half that was solid, there was a sense things might be teetering on the break. Being wasteful against a team that is getting some counter attack opportunities is a quick formula for losing games you should win.
By many numbers in the boxscore, Columbus was the better team, but anyone who watched the game can hardly begrudge Montreal a quality effort and victory it deserved.
Crew SC was not just inefficient in its shots, but also in its passing. Yes, an 84-percent passing rate is a great number, but that number dropped significantly to 69 percent in the final third.
There were promising moments
Most of my notes from the first half were promising. There were some looks at goal, players were working hard both ways and everyone seemed fully engaged. I thought Federico Higuain was playing with intensity after an anonymous week. I thought Mohamed Saeid was also better than he had been in some recent matches and did a good job keeping an eye on Ignacio Piatti. Parkhurst was back and making an impact (he's the one that got the sequence started that led to Waylon Francis' attempt on goal just before halftime).
But then the second half came, and all the energy was gone. So was the positivity.
The Crew SC modus operandi has been easy to define — short passes, keep possession, get the fullbacks forward, spread the ball, cross it a lot. Whether by design or just a matter of happenstance, on Saturday there seemed to be a notable increase in directness from the Black & Gold right from the start. Even in a scoreless game, there were some balls bombed down the wing, especially looking for Ethan Finlay on the right side. It was interesting to see, since Columbus has stuck to its game plan virtually every minute of the season.
It's worth noting that the home side's lone goal of the evening was probably its most direct of the year, with Wahl hoofing it from one end of the field to the other for a header down to the feet of Higuain for the goal.
The directness was a change of pace, but the right-side heaviness may have caused the Black & Gold to miss out on an opportunity to attack Nigel Reo-Coker on the other side of the field. The Montreal right back is a makeshift fullback and we've seen him victimized on multiple occasions defensively. Yet Columbus didn't force the issue and ask any questions of him.
Meanwhile, Kristinn Steindorsson remained quiet on the left side of the field. A rare start plus a matchup with Reo-Coker seemed to open a door of opportunity for the first-year Crew winger, but he wasn't much of a factor, leaving the club's fans still wondering if we can expect more from him after a promising preseason.
The question is, I guess, was the unbalanced, right-sided attack due to the fact that Steindorsson just isn't ever going to be a big danger going forward (i.e., his presence forced Columbus to attack down the opposite side) or did the unbalanced attack ignore Steindorsson and miss a big chance to get him involved?
Mistakes = goals
And unfortunately not for Columbus. CCSC too often offered up the ball for counter attack opportunities, and although the Impact have a reputation as a counter-attacking team, they actually had not scored a goal on the counter this season entering Saturday night's game. Of course, they also hadn't won a road game in their last 25 tries either.
The defense has been exposed too often not for its ability but for a seeming lack of cohesion and focus. Mental letdowns have allowed teams to put the ball in the back of the net.
On Montreal's first goal there were numerous breakdowns.
Ok, Hector Jimenez does well to read the intended chip from Andres Romero, who caused all sorts of problems for Columbus on the night. But you HAVE to head that ball away from goal. Putting it into the middle and backwards may as well have been a pass to the Impact.
Then Parkhurst and Tyson Wahl seem to wait for the other to actually step to the ball. It looked as though Parkhurst should have done something with it.
And, of course, there's Jack McInerney. He puts the initial shot on goal that Clark does well to save, but who is marking him? Everyone in the defensive midfield watches as he waltzes in.
The second goal, by Romero, came on a quick counter after a quirky free kick from Crew SC that I thought was a nice idea, but Montreal seemed to see coming. A second ball in got cleared out and the Impact were off to the races. By the time Piatti and Romero were crossing the midfield stripe Columbus had no chance.
It was yet another time that Columbus got caught up field on a set piece and couldn't get back in time. I know it was late, but a one-goal game with close to 15 minutes left to play is not a dire enough situation to be that careless.
Steve Clark was to blame on one of Philadelphia's goals mid-week, and it seemed to shine a light on the fact that he has, on occasion, struggled handling the ball or been over aggressive in trying to do so. He had a strong game on Saturday, though, and neither goal was his fault.
Clark had four saves in the game, and three of them were big ones. He stopped a 38th-minute counter by Piatti, came up with an oustanding stop in the 59th minute and, of course, did well to stop McInerney's shot that Maxime Tissot ultimately cleaned up.
CCSC has a week to sort things out before it welcomes the Los Angeles Galaxy to MAPFRE Stadium. There are no excuses of a busy short week or tired legs or lineup rotation to be had. L.A. is like Columbus — a team from which many people expect(ed) big things this year but has struggled. Crew SC will hope it gets things figured out before the Galaxy.