The frustration of an early-season loss to D.C. United has been washed away. Columbus Crew SC rode into RFK Stadium on Saturday and grabbed a deserved 2-1 victory at a critical time in the season, launching the Black & Gold into first place in the Eastern Conference. It's a nice view from the top, and the club has put itself in a solid position as the battle continues down the stretch.
How did the performance on Saturday fit in to all that, and why was Columbus able to succeed against a team which it doesn't match up particularly well against? Here are some of my takeaways from the match. Please join in the discussion and leave your own thoughts in the comments section below.
Less emphasis on crossing
The memory that haunted so many Crew SC fans from the team's last trip to RFK Stadium was that of cross after cross coming up an empty, and of little other ingenuity from the Black & Gold attack. Washington D.C. won't see that many crosses when the Pope visits the White House (credit goes elsewhere on the Massive Report team for that one).
But a repeat nightmare never developed this time, as Columbus de-emphasized the cross, and it was a welcome sight and surely did not hurt the attacking cause.
Crew SC averages 27 crosses per game, which leads the league. It only attempted 17 crosses on Saturday. But it's not just about total crosses; it's more about how Columbus is utilizing its attack and whether it avoids getting stale. The last time these two teams met, the Black & Gold launched a whopping 40 crosses, which accounted for 17.3 percent of the team's passes in the attacking third. Believe it or not, the club topped that percentage at 19.7 just four weeks ago against against New York City FC (they had 34 crosses in that game). Entering the D.C. match, Columbus had attempted crosses at a 12.8-percent and 12.7-percent rate the previous two games.
Against DCU this time, Crew SC's cross rate was just 10.4 percent. I'd venture to guess that is one of the lowest marks of the season. That change was critical against a United team that poses a tough tactical matchup for the Black & Gold.
It's Tchani time
Tony Tchani was not perfect in the nation's capital. He had a couple of turnovers in the midfield that were dangerous, including one that nearly led to a D.C. goal, were it not for a good Steve Clark save. But boy did he make his impact felt in the attack. I'm not sure I've ever seen Tchani do quite what he did over a three-minute stretch early in the game, in which he was unlucky to not notch the game's first goal.
At three minutes he got his foot on the ball in the box, completely beating Bill Hamid but watching the shot careen off the crossbar. A minute and a half later, it was Tchani blasting from long distance. And less than a minute after that, there he was again from about 25 yards out. And thirty seconds after that, he had another go with a shot that was partially blocked and deflected away. In the middle of that sequence I did a double take because what I thought had been a TV replay was actually live action.
When we talk about Columbus finding different ways to attack, Tchani provided one. No, he didn't connect, but by being willing to strike from deep he automatically forced the D.C. defense to defend a step or two higher and forced it to worry about yet another player beyond the usual suspects. The midfielder topped it all of with a perfectly-weighted ball to Kei Kamara for the game-winning goal.
Solid team defense
Yes, the back line has struggled this year. Yes, Steve Clark has played his role in that. And, yes, hearing the team talk about "better team defending" sounds at least partially like a cop out from admitting to other problems that might force finger pointing. But the fact of the matter is that better team defense is needed as well, and I thought that CCSC offered it for most of the night against United. It was especially noticeable in the first half, when I thought the wingers made an extra effort to track back deep to help defensively, the defensive midfielders were in the right spots in their own end and even Federico Higuain and Kamara offered a little back pressure.
It's hard to prove a causational relationship, but it is worth pointing out that the back-breaking defensive meltdown that has caused problems this season did not occur against DCU.
Late formation shift
We might be starting to see a trend. Against the Philadelphia Union a week ago, Berhalter switched up formations late in the game to try to see things out. That move was a 4-4-1-1 formation, with Harrison Afful in the midfield. Against D.C. United we saw another change late in the game with Columbus leading. It looked, for the most part, very much the same, as we saw an attacking player subbed off for Emanuel Pogatetz. Sometimes, this looked like a 4-4-1-1, with Michael Parkhurst again sliding in to the right back spot, Afful sliding up to right mid and Pogatetz and Tyson Wahl as the center backs. In this case, Hector Jimenez was at the left back spot. Perhaps it was just the circumstances of the game, but I thought it was a little more flexible this time, with it at times looking like a 5-4-1 and other times like a 3-5-1-1, with the three center backs along the back and Jimenez — who's a converted midfielder anyone — and Afful very much in the midfield.
The point is, it looks like Berhalter may have finally found something that will help this team become a little more defensively stable. That's something that was needed earlier in the season, and regardless of exactly what the formation is, the personnel grouping seems to be one that will play a role the rest of the way.
By the skin of their teeth
Even with a very good road performance, the Black & Gold couldn't seem to do without some drama. The good news is that, first, that drama mostly came in spite of Crew SC's play rather than because of it and, second, when there was a little bit of a problem, Columbus got away with it.
It's hard to blame anyone for Chris Rolfe penalty kick that came after a Chris Klute handball. It was just one of those things that happens sometimes. Klute was a little bit late getting over to defend the cross in, but that had to do with D.C.'s attacking positioning, which used the space well and forced Klute to help inside a little on Nick DeLeon. Justin Meram was a little late coming in from the left side to pressure Markus Halsti, who originally got the touch on the ball, and it was just a case of the dominoes falling.
But to say that D.C. didn't deserve a goal would be disingenuous, and Columbus escaped by the skin of its teeth thanks to an offside flag that may not have been right. It was a very close call as to whether Alvaro Saborio was kept onside by Parkhurst. Luckily for the Black & Gold, that's not the way the assistant referee saw it.
That was one of the only times I saw any sort of defensive letdown from Columbus (Tyson Wahl getting torched by Saborio earlier in the game not withstanding). It's a tough spot to react in, but Parkhurst didn't step up when the rest of the defensive line was ahead of him, including Jimenez, who let Saborio float in behind him, either because he was ball-watching or because he was working the offside trap. I don't know which it was, but the whole thing nearly cost Crew SC in a big way.
Three points are all that matter
But you know what? Three points are all that matter at this point. At this point in the season, CCSC is what it is, and it seems unlikely that any great strides will be made in problem areas between now and the playoffs. At this point, maxing out points is the biggest goal, because the Eastern Conference is a whirlwind. The best thing Columbus can do is avoid the play-in round and secure home field. Ultimately, matchups could undo the Black & Gold, but you can only control so much, and Crew SC needs to stay in control right now.