Hurrah! Columbus Crew SC got back on the right side of things with a 2-1 win over the Philadelphia Union on Saturday, bouncing back from one of the club's poorer efforts of the season and doing so on the road at PPL Park in the City of Brotherly Love. It was also a much improved effort from when the two sides met in the same location back in June.
We take a more nuanced look at the performance, dissect some of the good and bad and discuss what the takeaways from the victory are. We'd love to hear your own reaction in the comments section below.
Defensive ups and downs
As we know by this point in the season, this team tends to go as its defense goes. Or, I should clarify, when the defense makes fewer gaffes than the attack makes goals. That's a slippery slope to set up shop on, and too often Crew SC fans have felt the ground shifting, whether it gives way or not.
On Saturday, it didn't give way. The back line avoided the killer breakdown. Still, there were shaky moments; too many times when players just didn't quite seem to feel confident in their position or interaction with each other. There was some decent emergency defending, and for long stretches the Union were kept at bay, but it's disheartening when fans can never quite feel confident about things, even after a positive result.
It seems foolish to believe this is an issue that can be fixed right now — that's a goal for the offseason, at this point — and the reality is that this defense cannot win a championship. It will be lucky to win a two-leg series. Last year's playoff embarrassment should be a distant memory, but it may have been a critical omen.
Afful was absolutely not awful, and that's awfully awesome
Last Afful pun, I promise. Remember when Black & Gold fans were disappointed and on the edge of panic when the presumed loan move for Zeca fell through this summer? It may have been a blessing in disguise, because it seems unlikely that the young Brazilian would have been any better than Afful.
Yes, this is a very short-term observation, and we would have felt good about Hernan Grana or Emanuel Pogatetz after a similar short period of time (though Pogatetz could, by some unlikely stroke of unexpectedness, still redeem himself). Still, there's little question how much of a positive impact the right back has made thus far. He's been defensively responsible in a way that Hector Jimenez cannot offer. He imposes himself less than Grana did in his stint, fitting more seamlessly. He links well and has shown on more than one occasion the ability to play a great final ball. He assisted on both of Kei Kamara's goals against Philadelphia, and this one was a beauty:
If that's Afful, then I don't want to be good. (That's it, I swear.)
Columbus has to be physical
This is something that's concerned me the entire season. Can Crew SC maintain its composure and its style of play in the presence of a physical match? I thought for much of the night in Philadelphia, the Black & Gold did well in this area. But then came the Union's goal. Tony Tchani got swatted off the ball like a fly by Sebastian Le Toux. Yes, the rest of the Columbus defense was in shambles at this point, but this is unacceptable.
When Kamara went down in obvious pain early in the match, I held my breath. He'd been bumped around a few times this season, but for a moment I thought this was the one everyone had been dreading. It was in that moment I realized just how thin a veil lies behind the club's hopes and oblivion. I know Jack McInerney is in the fold now, and I believe Columbus is a better team for it, but as we saw against FC Dallas, the Black & Gold attack is a totally different animal with and without Kamara. As if to prove just how fine a line Crew SC might be walking, Kamara proceeded to quickly score a pair of goals moments later. And Columbus fans will continue to hold their collective breaths.
It's common knowledge to Columbus fans that Gregg Berhalter built his system and he sticks with it. Very rarely does he change anything other than personnel (and even that is few and far between), even for short periods of a game. But we have seen a few shifts late in games, and on Saturday we saw one I don't believe we've seen before.
Late in the match, Berhalter brought on Pogatetz and it appeared there would be some sort of three center-back line with wingbacks. But that's not what happened. Instead, Michael Parkhurst shifted over to right back (a position he has played at times in his career, but very rarely for Crew SC), with Pogatetz and Tyson Wahl in the middle and Chris Klute (who had been subbed on for Waylon Francis) in his regular left back role. The rest of the squad fell in to a 4-4-1-1, with Afful sliding into the midfield on the right side (his versatility makes this a fine option) with Parkhurst behind him, Tchani and Wil Trapp as a defensive pairing in the middle and substitute Cedrick Mabwati on the left. Federico Higuain played in a comfortable linking position with Kamara up top.
We've some times seen pregame graphics characterizing the Black & Gold as a 4-4-1-1, but if you actually watch the game you know that, this year, that's not really been the case. It's been a pretty steady 4-2-3-1 in attack. But this was a real 4-4-1-1, bolstered by three defensive-minded players in the midfield. And when Columbus really dropped back into a defensive shield, it turned into a 5-4-1, with seven defensive-minded players on the field.
We only saw it for a short while, but it could be a quality option when Columbus is trying to close out wins in important games down the stretch.
'Yes' this, @$$&*%!
Sometimes its fun to see a little attitude and feistiness from the Black & Gold, especially when some of their poorer performances have seemed listless and lifeless. So it was fun to see, at the end of Saturday's game, Crew SC goalkeeper Steve Clark turn to the crowd behind the goal with a smirk on his face and do the 'Yes!' arms. At first I assumed he was offering a subtle celebration to traveling fans, but I quickly realized he was directly in front of the Union supporters' section. I'm sure Clark heard a few friendly words from the Sons of Ben throughout the game, and it appeared like he was offering back his own little jab. When the games are getting bigger by the week, Columbus could use a little bit of that attitude.