A rough start to 2016 continued for Columbus Crew SC on Saturday with a 2-0 road loss to the Montreal Impact.
A road loss to a good team is not the end of the world, but paired with a string of disappointing results, it's hard to ignore the fact that the Black & Gold sit last in the Eastern Conference with just two points in five games and an attack that seems like it has a case of the yips.
What happened on Saturday north of the border? Here's a closer look.
A pragmatic start
In 73 games under Gregg Berhalter, you'd need less than one hand to count the number of times that the Black & Gold have been as pragmatic as they were on Saturday for the first 15 minutes of the game or so. The team showed little interest in its normal possession game, had two banks of four protecting the goal and allowed Montreal to move the ball around.
It is widely accepted that you play more conservatively on the road, but GB has been married to his system and has generally taken the approach that his team would try to set the tone rather than be reactive. I wouldn't expect this to be a broad new plan for Columbus, but after a frustrating first month of the season, it seems reasonable to play it a little safe in that scenario. It wasn't exciting on the field, but it did work to settle the team in. The defense looked well organized and Montreal did not get a lot of great opportunities (at that point). From that standpoint, it was a little exciting to see the team actually make a tactical adjustment and show some flexibility.
Or maybe I'm just desperately looking for a silver lining.
There's no sense in beating around the bush — the issues against the Impact were the same as they have been all season. The finishing has just not been the same in 2016. Ten shots is not what we're accustomed to from CCSC, but considering the approach the team took to start the game, it's reasonable to expect fewer shots overall. The problem was that there were only two on goal, and that's not good enough. You aren't going to typically score any goals at that rate, let alone enough to win a game.
And once again we saw that even the shots that weren't on goal were coming from decent spots. There was just no poise on the finish. The turf did have something to do with it, but it's hard to swallow that as an excuse. Good teams find a way to get results in all kinds of environments. But maybe that's just how this season has gone — a little turf monster is enough to unsettle this team right now. It certainly shines a light on the team's decision not to practice on turf ahead of those games.
Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay both saw looks right on the doorstep and both flubbed them (turf or not). Kei Kamara had a great early opportunity that skipped just too far for him to get his foot on it like he would have liked.
Here is the shot chart:
How do you get opportunities from those spots and only put two all day on goal?
We'll spend time later in the week dissecting the neutered goal-scoring of the 2016 Crew, but it's just not good enough.
Set pieces in pieces
You don't need to be told that allowing three set-piece goals in five games is not a good rate.
Early in 2016 we've continued to see Columbus play questionable set-piece defense. Typically we've seen players not defend zones well, whether due to individual error or a more communal lack of communication. That wasn't the issue on Hassoun Camara's corner kick header. This time it was purely a physical mismatch, with the 6-foot-2 Camara matched up on the 5-6 Harrison Afful. I'm no math major (in fact, I didn't even take a math class in college), but my limited mathematical abilities tell me that's an eight-inch height difference, and my limited cognitive ability tells me that's a losing situation nine out of 10 times.
So what happened there? It seems like a failure in preperation in one of two ways — either someone had the terrible idea of having Afful mark Camara (or having him defend a central zone), or, more likely, Afful got caught defending a central zone because of some sort of mixup. There's no logical way to explain his positioning there, and the Impact punished Crew SC for the mistake.
Throw in the fact that Columbus was non-threatening on attacking set pieces, and you're giving the opposition a huge advantage in an area that can decide a game.
Mo time for Mo
I'm not going to read too much into anything over a week or two, but it was still interesting that Mohammed Saeid got his second start in a row in the midfield. Last week's nod was not surprising, with Tony Tchani having just returned from international duty. This week may not have been expected, though.
Much was made over last week's dip in play after Meram was substituted off for Tchani. That, however, likely had as much to do the subtraction of Meram and a change in team mindset than it did with Tchani individually (even if he does share culpability on FC Dallas' tying goal).
So was this simply a reward for Saeid after a solid outing last week? Is it a reward for Saeid's work in practice? Has he out-performed Tchani in practice?
No need to create conspiracy theories over one change, but it's always worth watching the ebb and flow of decisions throughout the course of a season.
I won't delve too deeply into this just yet, but Kei Kamara spent too much time too deep in the midfield in Montreal. Part of his job is to drop and provide hold up play, but he spent too much time near the midfield stripe. Here's his heatmap of the game:
His general movement is pretty par for the course for the striker, but it's the distribution of touches that's a little problematic. He simply isn't getting enough of his touches in and around the box. He only got off two shots against the Impact, and only one was in a really good spot.
It's not just about getting Kei in spots to score either. When he is getting the ball around the box, it forces the defense to change how it plays and creates the room others need to create a threat. When Kamara is attacking out wide at the midfield line, defenses aren't that worried.
I'll take a deeper look at this later in the week, but it's a trend that has been pretty consistent throughout this season. His most box-heavy game was against Philadelphia, and he scored a goal in that game.
And as an added note: 23 touches is not enough. His best games last season saw him getting 40-50 touches.
Is all of this on Kei? Is this on his teammates getting him the ball?
(As a throw-in note...we got a good look at Ola Kamara for the first time. I thought his movement was pretty good, but was often missed by his teammates. One would think that will improve with more [healthy] time with the team. I thought it was a promising, if quiet, 20 minutes.)
Defending the defense
Two points in five games, but hey, the defense didn't let down against Montreal. Look on the bright side, right?
The defense has, in fact, generally been solid this season. Most of the breakdowns have occurred because of turnovers in bad spots rather than miscommunication on the back line. I thought we continued to see a steady back four against the Impact.
The loss of Gaston Sauro to injury, is, of course, a worry. Tyson Wahl came on and did a very nice job, but we've discussed the fear in having to rely on him for large swaths of minutes. It didn't look like a serious injury for Sauro, but it does appear to be hamstring related, and those things have been known to nag for weeks. Fans will have their fingers crossed that's not the case, because the Black & Gold certainly don't need more things to worry over right now.