Ahhh, the killer "we're not angry, just disappointed" punch to the gut. That's what Columbus Crew SC fans are dishing out after the Black & Gold fell to a desperate Portland Timbers side, 2-1, on a Saturday night that will otherwise be remembered as a celebration of the club's history.
Simply picking up points against Portland would have clinched a playoff berth for Columbus, but now Crew SC will have to wait at least another week as it continues to fight for its fate.
Here are some of my takeaways from the performance against the visitors from the Rose City. Chime in with your own thoughts and opinions in the comments section below.
A Massive night
Result aside, it was a big night for Columbus soccer. It marked a third consecutive sellout and fifth of the year — although announced attendance and bodies in the seats are two different things (maybe I expect too much but, personally, I was disappointed to see some empty seats on a Saturday night with a potential playoff-spot clinching against one of the higher profile teams in the league) — and it set a new attendance record (22,719) since the installation of the stage in 2008, thanks to the expanded seating. I know there are financial benefits to have the multi-purpose stadium, but having seating all the way around, behind the goal, looks much more impressive and adds to the atmosphere (and reminds me of my old season tickets directly behind the goal).
And while the announcement of the top 20 moments in club history may just be nostalgic marketing, that doesn't mean it can't be enjoyable and allow us to revel in what has drawn each of us to the Black & Gold during the last 20 years. It was a great night to have so many important faces from Crew SC history back on that grass together, and the tifos in honor of many of those players and memories were a great touch.
As expected, in many of the wrong ways
I talked before the match about what might be expected, and it played out largely as we thought it might, just in all the wrong ways for Columbus. Crew SC bossed possession by a wide margin (59.4 percent), while Portland threatened on the counter and still managed to put pressure on the home side. As needed, the Black & Gold weathered those opportunities early (for the first 25 minutes or so), but there were still too many issues, as we saw with the two goals allowed, not to mention that the Timbers should have had a penalty kick when Wil Trapp took down Darlington Nagbe in the box and never got the ball.
Issue No. 1 was too much space between the midfield and the back four for Nagbe and Diego Valeri to operate, and considering everyone knows those are the two danger men when it comes to creating in the attack, that's just unacceptable. Trapp was chasing a few times too many, and I thought Tony Tchani was generally unimpressive on the night, and those two could have made life much more difficult for those two Timbers. It was no more obvious than on the first goal, in which a quick 1-2 play between Nagbe and Rodney Wallace wreaked havoc on the defense, causing three Crew SC players to step up while Fernando Adi floated into the box unchallenged for the finish.
Lacking the final pass
That first Adi goal came moments after Kei Kamara had flashed a header just over the crossbar at the other end of the field. It was a missed opportunity, and one of the few that even turned into a half chance for the Black & Gold. Portland out-shot Columbus 13-11 on the night, which is notable for a number of reasons, the first being that 11 shots is below the team's average output and not good enough for a side that's third in the league in total shots (ironically, right behind the Timbers). What makes it less acceptable is only notching 11 shots — and getting out-shot — while having nearly 60 percent of possession.
People talk about possession as being overrated, and Saturday night was a prime example of why that can be. Crew SC missed out on its expressed purpose — limiting the opponent's attack and maximizing your own. The build was often there for Columbus, but too often the final pass was not good enough, and while the Black & Gold attacked often and failed to make Adam Kwarasey work in the Portland goal, the visitors took that reprieve and made it count.
Columbus had enough going forward in the first third of the game to take an early lead. Instead, they gave up the first goal and had to play on Portland's terms.
Kei continues to make 2015 a special year. His corner kick goal made him just the 11th player to score 22 goals in a season in MLS, joining Roy Lassiter, Chris Wondolowski, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Mamadou Diallo, Stern John, Carlos Ruiz, Raul Diaz Arce, Taylor Twellman, Dom Dwyer and Camilo. Not bad company.
Also impressive is that he is now the first player in league history to score against 21 teams. Yes, for most of MLS' history there have not been 21 different teams to score against, but that shouldn't make it any less special, especially considering that Kamara's only really had a few notable goal-scoring years in the league.
Now he's four strikes away from tying Stern John for the club single-season record and five away from tying the league record. Will he catch either?
Little impact off the bench
Trailing 2-1, we saw Columbus go back to the 4-3-3/4-2-1-3 we've occasionally seen late in games this season. On came subs Cedrick Mabwati and Hector Jimenez flanking Kamara, with Federico Higuain leading a midfield triangle that also included Trapp and substitute Mohamed Saeid. In the past, I was intrigued by the formation switch and often liked what I saw, but it was a dud on Saturday.
Despite nearly 70 percent possession from the time of the first change — Mabwati for Ethan Finlay — until the end of the game, Crew SC managed just two shots during that time. None of the three substitutes made any sort of substantial impact on the game. That's often been a trend throughout the season and something I hoped was changing as of late, but not this weekend. Fresh legs off the bench need to make their presence felt, and they failed to do that against Portland.
The road ahead
Where does that leave the Black & Gold? What we saw on Saturday is kind of what we've come to expect from Columbus this season. In many ways that is disappointing, but only because expectations rose like the Red Sea in front of Moses after last year's performance. The reality is, when Gregg Berhalter arrived most fans would have been thrilled to know that the team would be playing attractive, attacking soccer and be a playoff lock every year. Crew SC is still there, even if the ship has been too unsteady for growing hopes of MLS Cup contention to really grab hold.
Columbus faces a tough final three games at New York Red Bulls, at Toronto FC and hosting D.C. United. Those are three Eastern Conference playoff teams — arguably the best team in the league (regardless of Friday night's stumble), a side that desperately needs to finally fulfill its playoff promise and has star power and a team who has been in a playoff spot all year, and despite recent struggles is still a tricky matchup for Crew SC. The likelihood of a Supporter's Shield is next to nothing and a conference title is not far behind and certainly lies 100 percent on that game at New York. It would be the ultimate nightmare scenario to slide out of the playoffs entirely, as it would involve three losses and a combination of other things, so the probability of that is probably close to that of a Supporter's Shield.
The most important thing left at stake is getting one of those top two spots in the East, avoiding the play-in and securing home-field advantage. Anything can happen in the playoffs, but this doesn't look like a team that can win three different series to get to a final. The best hope at a run comes in controlling as much as possible and crossing some fingers.