Here are some thoughts on the 3-3 draw after a 3-0 lead. Share your own insights and opinions in the comments section below.
WANTED: Killer instinct
More and more I believe that the reputation the Black & Gold have as soft is warranted. Certainly they lack a killer instinct. Forget whether Jozy Altidore flopped, or if it was a deserved penalty kick (there was contact, he took advantage). The bottom line is you cannot — CANNOT — allow a 3-0 lead to get away. Especially when you've put in a good 50 minutes to earn that lead. Each TFC goal can be tracked to one reason or another, but the overarching issue is that Columbus has not shown an ability to put away games.
Perhaps most frustrating is that the style that Gregg Berhalter installed with Crew SC — possession, playing out of the back — should be tailor made to controlling and killing off games. Yet, here we stand...
Someone figure out how to handle the press
Speaking of things that the Black & Gold should inherently be good at, how about dealing with high pressure? This is not a new problem, but it still boggles my mind. As I mentioned above, there are some things you would think come hand in hand with the way GB asks his guys to play. If you put together a defense that is good with the ball at its feet, you'd think they would be reasonably adept at working out of pressure. Yet time and time again Columbus gets into trouble against teams that press it up high. I'm shocked that more opponents don't do it, honestly.
Toronto did not do a great job of pressing in the first half, but they dialed down in the second 45 minutes and the result was noticeable. It wasn't necessarily that it was forcing turnovers that led directly to goals (though TFC's first goal from Sebastian Giovinco did come off a Waylon Francis turnover), but it did lead to a slipping grip on the game, and with less possession Crew SC found itself pinned back more often.
We knew handling Giovinco was going to be a task and a major influence on Columbus' success in the game. For about 44 minutes, his influence was minimal (he missed that prime opportunity right before halftime). Most of that was due to the Black & Gold controlling the flow of the game and being defensively solid when they found themselves without the ball. But as TFC saw more possession in the second half, his influence increased.
Yes, he scored Toronto's first goal, but his influence was felt on the others as well. His pass opened the sequence that led to the second goal, by Collen Warner, but it was what happened before that pass that really tells the story. The Italian's gravity shifted the entire Crew SC defensive shape and created the space for that goal to happen.
Tony Tchani is all the way at the right touchline to close down, and Michael Parkhurst is way in front of the back line to do the same. (In the second half Parkhurst seemed to be under orders to man mark Giovinco in certain zones on the field. In premise it makes sense, but for a backline where communication hasn't been great, it was risky. There were multiple occasions where it nearly bit Columbus....in this case, it did.)
By pulling those two out of position, Giovinco does all the heavy lifting. When his pass released Daniel Lovitz into space, Columbus is scrambling in a big way, and TFC puts a pass right through the dead area Parkhurst would have helped cover while Warner runs right into the space Tchani would have been occupying. Justin Meram tracks back to try to help, but Crew SC is already playing emergency defense and Warner just slips off his back shoulder.
That all happened because Giovinco was on the field.
Good half, Columbus
On a positive note, the Black & Gold played one of their better halves of the season in the first 45 minutes. The defense was solid, there was good ball movement to maintain possession, there was a little bit of diversity in attack (as opposed to push down the wing and cross to Kei Kamara) and Steve Clark came up with a couple of big saves in goal.
Against a team challenging for a top three or four spot in the Eastern Conference, it was extremely well-played soccer. Even the second half started well, with Crew SC inserting what would have seemed like a dagger with a quick goal. That, was the first 50 minutes.
I didn't watch the game live and saw the final score before I was able to watch. It was so bittersweet to watch those first 45 or 50 minutes feeling so good about the play on the field but knowing that something was going to go horribly wrong.
For a while we've been asking, "What's Crew SC's Plan B? Is there one? Do they need one?" We've only seen fleeting moments of tweaks in formation and style, and nothing particularly effective in small sample sizes. But on Saturday we saw something I found really intriguing.
When Mohamed Saeid came on in the second half for Federico Higuain, Columbus shifted into a defensive 4-3-3 (4-5-1 its own third), with Ethan Finlay and Kristinn Steindorsson on either side of Kei Kamara but with freedom to pinch in pretty centrally, and Saeid, Tchani and Will Trapp in the midfield.
I liked it. A lot. The team seemed comfortable in that formation and it almost immediately led to a goal with some really nice buildup and a good chance for Kamara. Finlay and Steindorsson were both industrious and helpful in the midfield. In fact, I thought it was as useful as Steindorsson has looked in the regular season. It also seemed to be a great role for Saeid, with the freedom to run and attack a little bit while still providing some defensive help.
Despite the fact the lead was lost, that disappointment had nothing to do with the 4-3-3 look. I'd love to see it again. The problem is that it just doesn't work with Pipa on the field. He doesn't fit any of those roles well. Yet, Columbus doesn't want to lose the creativity and ingenuity he brings to the game. I think, however, it's a very good option for Berhalter to go to when Crew SC has second-half leads (he didn't make the shift until Toronto had already scored two goals), solidifying the midfield without losing the ability to go forward.
The penalty kick
Some Crew SC fans may feel hard done by the penalty kick. As for me, I think play should have gone on without a whistle. Jozy Altidore went down very easily and there was no way he was getting to the cross anyway. That said, there was contact and the veteran striker took advantage.
Still, the whole sequence was a mess for the Black & Gold. That is why second ball's in are always so dangerous. Here's a breakdown of what went wrong and why the responsibility falls with Columbus, and not the whistle-blowing official:
This is how things looked after Altidore's intial shot (prior to which he had physically manhandled Francis about 25 yards out from goal) deflected off Tyson Wahl. This is Cedrick attempting to clear the ball, which he does very poorly, giving possession right back to Toronto in the attacking third. Notice that Francis and Steindorsson are caught ball-watching, rather than attempting to get into position (they're walking just as slowly in the live video). Parkhurst has been pulled to the far post by Giovinco (there's that gravity again).
At this point the cross is already coming in for TFC. By this time Parkhurst has recovered to his natural position, but Steindorsson is still out wide and Francis was slow to react. You can see him here rushing to recover and try to get to Altidore, but by then it's too late. Seconds earlier we saw him lose that physical battle once, and he's not going to win it this time when he's playing emergency defense. Wahl over-corrected a bit with Parkhurst previously out of position, and here he's caught on his heels too close to the near post and allowing Giovinco to break free. Tony Tchani also released Altidore off his back shoulder and remained centrally positioned. All of that creates the perfect space for Altidore to run into with all Crew SC players defending with their face to goal.
As the ball comes in it's all too little, too late. It goes well over Altidore, but the contact has already been made, as a scrambling Francis clips the striker's heels and Altidore immediately crumbles to the ground.
So, to recap: A poor clear leads to a second ball in, which is always dangerous. Ball-watching led to slow reactions, and the resulting scramble led to contact ... and the loss of two points.