After a midweek draw with New York City FC left little to get excited about (although every point matters), there were a lot of positives on display for Columbus Crew SC on Saturday as it defeated visiting Sporting Kansas City, 3-2, while twice coming from a goal down before getting a late winner from new striker Jack McInerney.
After so often offering mixed bag performances, this one was mostly good from the Black & Gold, even while conceding two goals. It was a good way to end a two-game, week-long home stand and continue to solidify the club's standing in a tight Eastern Conference playoff race.
Here are some of my takeaways from the game. Share your own in the comments' section below.
No major gaffes from back line
Week after week, Crew SC fans wait for the shoe to drop with the defense. On Saturday night, it never really did. At least with the mistake-prone back four. The closest that group came to a punishing gaffe was in the 28th minute, when Waylon Francis got caught way up field, did his normal leisurely track back, and got no cover from Tony Tchani or Justin Meram. But SKC didn't capitalize.
Outside of that, the back line was solid and as positionally aware as we've seen them in a while. Neither Sporting goal could be attributed to the defenders. Marcel De Jong's first, in the 14th minute, saw the back four do everything it could. It was the midfield that didn't come to support and allowed De Jong to run in unimpeded at the far post, with Harrison Afful having to pull inside to cover a man.
And credit goes entirely to Graham Zusi on his strike, because the Black & Gold were in position and Zusi just smacked a great ball.
I've written in 6-Thought Boxes of the past about Federico Higuain's up and down performance level. For the most part he's been solid, but there have been a handful of games where he's been nearly invisible, and his recent stretch hasn't been his best. That changed on Saturday, with one of his best all-around games of the season.
He may have been credited with an assist only on Tony Tchani's goal, but he was a major part of sending the Kansas City defense scattering on the other two goals, both which saw great volleys nearly find the mark themselves. On the first goal he got off the initial shot before the ball came back out and Kei Kamara put it across to Ethan Finlay. On the final goal he brilliantly brought down Michael Parkhurst's outstanding long ball and forced the save that led to McInerney's poached goal.
And he didn't just show up on those plays. He spent the night drifting and playing his traditional pace-setter role in the midfield, where a lack of an experienced, true defensive midfielder for Sporting KC gave him a little more space than anticipated.
Mac's the man
Some people questioned the acquisition of McInerney due to the fact there were more pressing issues elsewhere, namely at right back and center back. Forget that those two problems have since seen possible solutions brought in; a second striker, to me, was third on the list (and maybe even par with center back for No. 2 on the list). On Saturday night we saw exactly what his addition brings to Columbus.
Kei Kamara can't play every minute of the season, and an exhausted star striker could be disastrous when the postseason nears. The bottom line was that any other striker on the roster prior to McInerney's arrival was basically a warm body on the field and a black hole technically and tactically. If Columbus wasn't holding a late lead, they were useless.
That's why, entering this week, the club had not scored a single goal off the bench all season. That's absolutely terrible, and either says that the bench was offering nothing in attack and/or Gregg Berhalter is terrible at figuring out who can make a positive impact. That changed on Wednesday, when Cedrick Mabwati salvaged a draw off the bench, and it happened again against Sporting Kansas City. Two midseason acquisitions showing how critical it is to have depth of talent.
Jack Mac operates by drifting along the defensive line and exploiting space. Put yourself in space near goal and you generally find ways to put the ball in the net — Chris Wondolowski has made a career as one of MLS' all-time successful goal-scorers that way.
He's not going to out-run people. He's not going to out-athlete people. But the Black & Gold already have guys that can do that. On Saturday he played his role perfectly, and he got CCSC three points.
Ask, and you shall receive. Sometimes.
After the NYCFC game I wrote about how bad Columbus has been on set pieces on both sides of the field. They struggle marking defensively, and they rarely score set piece goals, despite having a delivery man like Higuain and a target like Kamara.
Well, on Saturday the Black & Gold scored just their fifth set-piece strike of the season. Well done. Now more, please.
The two-striker formation
Along with McInerney's arrival came all sorts of ideas and suggestions about how Crew SC should line up. Personally, I don't think he was ever acquired to put two strikers on the field at the same time, but he at least provides that option when a goal is needed.
We did, however, see two strikers for a short time after Columbus went down 2-1. That's when McInerney came on for Justin Meram, and seeing as those are two very different players, the formation changed. What we saw was a 4-2-2-2, with the two strikers up top, Higuain and Finlay behind them and Tchani and Trapp behind them.
I don't think it was a bad look. The two fullbacks provide the width, but they're flying up the flanks in Berhalter's standard system anyway. Of course, it doesn't serve GB's cross-heavy system as much, since it is narrower than the 4-2-3-1 and less stable — Higuain floats, Finlay is best served being able to drift out to the right a little and it forces the D-mids to pull out wide more often and provide cover for the fullbacks, because lord knows they need it. It is definitely doable, though, and I think is a reasonable option for continued application.
Icing on the cake
Consider this win icing on the cake. Three points is three points, and all will be huge for postseason positioning. But Columbus needs to, most importantly, be winning games against Eastern Conference opponents — results that can create six-point swings.
Icing is sweet and often tastes great, but if all you eat is icing you're generally left feeling unsatisfied and a little sickly as you crash from the sugar buzz. The cake fills you up though, and Crew SC needs to remain satiated during the next month and a half.