Well, that one's out of the way now.
There was little time to shake off any rust as Columbus Crew SC opened the 2016 season on the road at the Portland Timbers on Sunday in a rematch of the last game either team played — MLS Cup. Unfortunately for Black & Gold fans, the result was the same. Exactly the same — 2-1 in favor of the Timbers
Here are some thoughts about the opener and how to digest this result...
Right back at right back
The general consensus is that the Columbus defense should be better this season if only because of a full season from Harrison Afful and Gaston Sauro. On Sunday Afful picked up where he left off at the end of 2015.
Afful was excellent in the first half getting forward. His service was spot on, he put himself in dangerous positions and there were multiple times when, out of possession, he worked to get the ball back high up the field, before Portland could counter.
Of course, he was also charged with dealing with Dairon Asprilla, who was a nightmare all day. Part of this is simply that CCSC's system asks Afful to get high up the pitch, and that, naturally, will create more openings for a winger to attack in behind. But if we're going to praise the Ghanaian right back, we also have to point out that he too often let Asprilla get on his back shoulder and create opportunities. That's how the game-winner played out. He was also a little careless on the foul that set up the first goal — did he really need to step in when he had help defensively?
Crew SC needs him providing that service in attack, but it can't afford him losing track of his man for a split second, like he did on Sunday. Still, there's little doubt this team is better with Afful than without him, and he looks poised for a big 2016 (I stand by assertion he'll be a Best-XI right back this season).
No counter for the counter
Let's be honest: the Timbers easily could have put another two or three balls in the net. For at least one game, Portland's finishing was much like it was last year — not necessarily its forte. Many of those great opportunities came off the counter attack. Whether due to a turnover at midfield or coming off a Columbus set piece, there were too many chances for Portland to get out on the break. It did exactly what was expected — overload on the right and then spray it left for Dairon Asprilla (we might have expected Lucas Melano on the left, but that mattered little) to attack one-on-one or run into space as the CCSC back line had shifted over to account for the other half of the field. Asprilla wasn't sharp when it came to his shots on goal, but you can't count on an opponent misfiring that often.
This is what Gregg Berhalter's system opens you up for with the fullbacks high up the pitch. That puts the onus on the wingers to be smart and know when to continue to push high and when to drop on the overlap, and on the defensive midfielders to provide cover. But no matter what you do, there will be chances on the counter. Columbus continues to be without a real answer for it.
Some positive defense
All eyes are on the back line this season. A lot of frustration last season came from the defensive breakdowns that often killed Crew SC, and it was nerve wracking to watch every game waiting for that shoe to drop. In Game 1 of 2016, for the most part, the defense was well organized. Communication seemed solid. Most of Portland's opportunities had to do with the flow of the game and the counter, rather than a defense getting its wires crossed. If Afful sharpens up a little, those two goals don't happen, and you can't take anything away from a brilliantly planned and executed free kick. All that said, the team needs to find a way to defend better in transition.
Based on the minutes he saw in the preseason, Hector Jimenez seems to have Berhalter's favor, at least for the moment. Our own Patrick Murphy predicted Jimenez would start this one, and he did. He was, however, mostly a non factor. He drifted centrally quite frequently and often swapped with Federico Higuain, but didn't do much regardless of where on the field he popped up. His passing wasn't particularly crisp, and there was this dog of a corner kick, which ultimately result in a Timbers counter and a great opportunity for Asprilla.
(The video quality's not great, but the ball skips before the front post. That's also Diego Chara, who had a very good day, with an insane run to drag defenders right and create even more space for Asprilla.)
Jimenez made way in the 67th minute as Justin Meram — last year's regular starter on the left — came on. The attack instantly seemed more seamless, even as Meram was not, individually, on top of his game. Someone should probably tell him the whole league knows exactly what he's trying to do; on Sunday his attempts to get on his right foot for the meat hook were constantly thwarted. But despite the fact he didn't make a direct impact on the ball, suddenly everything just felt more, well, Crew-ish. The team's movement was more instinctual. Meram continued to frequently swap with Higuain, but it just worked better. Pipa seemed more engaged and comfortable, and Meram was better suited to playing centrally than Jimenez (which should not be a surprise).
There have been questions about Meram before and we know he's been eyeing opportunities overseas, which may end up panning out before the season is over. But regardless of whatever Berhalter has seen in Jimenez this preseason, in Game 1 it was clear that Meram was a better option.
It will be interesting to see how the wings play out as the season progresses, with GB embracing Jimenez, Meram's future somewhat of a question mark and the presence of Cedrick Mabwati, who may, ultimately, be best-suited to being a spark off the bench, but whom most fans would like to see get a look in a bigger role.
And then there's...
So what's wrong with Ethan Finlay?
I know, probably nothing at all. But sometimes it's fun to get people a little riled up.
The reality, though, is that he was not very effective late in the playoffs and was invisible for large stretches of this game against the Timbers. Sure, he played the ball in that Higuain polished off with his sensational bicycle goal, but it was a deflected ball. It would have seemed he'd have a pace advantage against Jermaine Taylor, but that didn't play a role at any point. Most of the good service from the right came from Afful, not Finlay. He didn't get many, if any, looks at goal. It was just, overall, a quiet outing. Throw in that outside of a perfect cross that left a good taste in people's mouths, his time on the field for the U.S. National Team was not exactly impressive. Maybe Finlay is not an international-level winger, but Crew SC fans would probably feel a little bit better if he could get back to ravaging MLS fullbacks.
A good game against a good team
This shouldn't even need to be said, yet so often it does need to be — you can't get too high or too low after one game. This was a good game between two good teams with a lot of positives for Crew SC. When the defending champion — with most of the team returning — plays on its home field, it's supposed to win. You would expect Columbus, like all teams, will continue to get sharper and more incisive as we get a few weeks into season.
It would have been great to get three points to open the year, bu now the first one is out of the way.
BONUS BIKE RIDE
For your viewing pleasure, that thrilling goal by Higuain: