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6-Thought Box: Swallowing a Crew SC loss to the lowly Philadelphia Union

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Nobody would have predicted a Columbus loss to the Union on Saturday, but, hey, this is MLS. Now, some thoughts on the game.

Philadelphia's Andre Blake hauls in a the ball behind Colubmus striker Kei Kamara in a 2-1 Union win.
Philadelphia's Andre Blake hauls in a the ball behind Colubmus striker Kei Kamara in a 2-1 Union win.
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Not too many people saw that one coming.

After a generally positive, if losing, performance to the Portland Timbers on the road, the Philadelphia Union seemed like a a team ripe for the picking and a great way to get Columbus Crew SC on the path to success in 2016 and open with a bang in front of home fans.

Whoops.

I fell for the optimism too, and why not? This was a game the Black & Gold should have won. But in the back of my mind I always had three letters haunting me — M-L-S. This league is nothing if not predictably wide open, and the MLS factor struck again.

Here are some thoughts about how things went down and what might be worth paying attention to.

Never forget context

This game could be a disastrous sign for Columbus or a wonderful beacon of promise for the Union. More likely, it's a regular, old MLS contest where if one team isn't at it's best, any other team in the league can beat it.

This was not a particularly sharp performance from Crew SC. There were some bright moments, but it was, mostly, disappointing.

It was also Game 2 of the season. It would be great to come out firing on all cylinders, but that's generally not the case. Look at the Timbers — they got tagged this weekend by the San Jose Earthquakes, a team most would assume is a lesser foe.

Some early-season dullness is to be expected. Two games is too small a sample size to panic.

Yes, the trends are worrisome. This is the first time in a decade Columbus has opened 0-2. It has lost its last four competitive games, and hasn't led in any of them. It's the first time the Black & Gold have lost a home opener since 2004, and the first time they've lost to Philadelphia at MAPFRE Stadium.

The top two teams in the East in 2015 are now 0-4. Regardless of shifts in the hierarchy, nobody expects that much of a tectonic shift. So let's take a deep breath.

Remember sample size. And besides that, this team wasn't always the picture of consistency last year, and if there's one thing most people agreed on coming into 2016 it's that this team looks an awful lot like last year's team.

Set pieces in pieces

So, about looking like the 2015 Crew... How about some deja vu on set-piece defense.

A sticking point for a while, set-piece defense let Columbus down again when a long throw-in led directly to a Chris Pontius goal.

This wasn't your typical set-piece goal, but the issues for Crew SC still looked very familiar. One would like to see Wil Trapp do a better job clearing the ball out on his head, rather than skipping it directly into the heart of the box, but what transpired after that is even more troubling.

Once again we saw a defense that was flat-footed and slow to react on a set piece. Pontius made a run from near the top of the 18-yard box straight toward goal. There was nothing fancy about it. And Michael Parkhurst just watched it happen. Or, more likely, he was ball-watching. Either way, he didn't seem to recognize that the ball was coming toward him or that Pontius was doing the same.

I know the game is played at a high speed, but that's why these guys get paid to be professionals, and that just wasn't good enough. If it had been an isolated incident we could probably shrug it off as a momentary lack of focus, but we've seen it too often before. This is a sample size that is far more trustworthy.

Awareness and turnovers

Besides awareness in the back, mental focus in the midfield caused issues for the Black & Gold on Saturday. Often this came in the form of an errant pass when the team was trying to push up the field, stalling things out and preventing the attack from getting in its rhythm. More importantly, this sometimes led directly to a Philadelphia counter attack.

It's a problem we've seen before, especially with the way that Gregg Berhalter's system commits so much to attacking play. If you cough the ball up in the midfield, the opposition is going to have some space in which to create chances.

I thought Columbus struggled with awareness of the pressure from the Union, whether it was high up the field — where there were a few nervy moments — or deeper in the midfield. A number of times Philadelphia brought pressure and Crew SC midfielders were dispossessed from behind.

The home side got away with it until it didn't. Pontius' second goal was the product of one such turnover at midfield, when Federico Higuain had pressure on his back and the ball ended up at the foot of CJ Sapong, and Philly tore down field and put the back line in chaos.

This all came off a throw-in, made by Waylon Francis, who, rather than drop into a defensive position after the throw, drifted way up field. This is the price you pay in GB's system, but also was a bad decision by Gaston Sauro, who ranged up field with the ball at his feet with absolutely zero defensive support, before putting the ball into a tough spot in the midfield where there's not a good passing triangle and Higuain has a defender on his back with defensive help closing.

That leads to a major scramble and an over-run by Harrison Afful on the opposite side of the field, as Ilsinho sucks in three defenders — at this point, I'm not sure he's proven to need that much attention. Parkhurst does well to make the tackle, but it's too late. The attention to Ilsinho means nobody is within 10 yards of a late run from Pontius.

If awareness had been better at any level on that play, the goal likely never happens.

More Cedrick, please.

Crew SC is blessed to have a bevy of quality left wingers. Thus far, Hector Jimenez, who probably would have been last on the list in most fans' eyes coming into the season, has gotten starts in both games. Justin Meram and Cedrick Mabwati have come off the bench.

All of those guys bring something different to the table, but only one looks like a potential game changer right now. It's easy to see what Berhalter sees in Jimenez — he's versatile, reliable and defensively responsible. Meram is the most dangerous cutting inside and has shown some creative spark off the bench through two games. But Mabwati has something that no one else does, especially with Ethan Finlay's offensive contributions quiet so far, and that's the ability to beat guys one-on-one.

Maybe it's a late-game role that allows him to maximize his explosiveness, but after a game against a questionable defense in which Columbus seemed to lack that final push on the attack, it would be nice to see what his injection would mean to the starting lineup. Once he settled in against Philadelphia he was electric. Give him some more time to find his footing and see what he can do, especially for a team that needs something other than the cross-into-the-box approach.

Options

It didn't affect the game because it never happened, but it's interesting to note that when Afful went down after landing awkwardly Crew SC did not warm up another fullback. Rather, Mabwati got ready to come on, where he would slot in as a left attacking midfielder and allow Jimenez to slide back to right back.

That is, obviously, part of Jimenez' value. Although he spent the majority of his MLS career in the midfield, he was converted to fullback when he came to Columbus, and has been used in both roles. A naturally right-sided player, that's where most of his minutes came last year. Now Berhalter has put him on the left side, filling a similar role to Meram — a wide player who cuts in to his dominant foot.

Chad Barson, the only other natural right back on the roster behind Afful, was not in the gameday 18. Corey Ashe, who is a left back but has played spot minutes on the right, clearly was not the next-best option in GB's mind. At the moment, it appears that Jimenez is both the first-choice left midfielder and the second-choice right back, certainly an elevation of his role just a few months ago.

The finishing will get better

See my first thought.

I thought Kei Kamara had a better game than in Week 1, irrespective of him actually finding the back of the net. He was more active in build up play and dropping back to hold the ball up or flick it on. Anecdotally, I don't remember him doing that as much against Portland. That's a good sign.

I thought Pipa was engaged and in very good form (even if he couldn't hold on to the ball that led to the second goal...it probably should have never been played to him).

I still think Finlay needs to make his presence felt more, but thought there were brighter moments, and he did do some good work defensively.

The substitutes made some things happen, but didn't polish things off.

Crew SC notched 19 shots. Only seven were on frame. Only one of those went in. That's a 5 percent finishing rate, or about half of average.

There is enough precedent to expect the players on this team are better than that. The mean has gravity.

ADDED NOTE: As I watched the game I wrote in my notebook, "Andre Blake is REALLY good." If you were paying any attention prior to Saturday's game, you already knew that. If you didn't, you know that now. That's not to say he's perfect, but it is to say the he has a bright future (and that even a blind squirrel finds a nut occasionally, re: the Union + goalkeepers). He's shown shot-stopping ability and presence in the 18-yard box. He doesn't look like a guy with just nine professional appearances (though of six appearances last year, WhoScored.com named him Man of the Match twice). American Soccer Analysis predicted Blake wouldn't be ready yet, but through two weeks they've been proven wrong. It's a long season and the early days of his career, but he sure looks like a top-tier MLS keeper for the next decade.