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Turning the Corner: Columbus Crew SC's return to its 4-2-3-1 fundamentals

Overwrought victory versus NYCFC showed glimpses of top-form Columbus, but consistency still needed.

Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the dust and MAPFRE Stadium celebratory confetti have settled following Columbus Crew SC's first three-point outing of the year, the training week for a visit from the Houston Dynamo is underway.

A Columbus team failing to find rhythm, shape or unity through five games this year finally coalesced enough—€”barely, as it turned out—€”to hang on and beat New York City FC, 3-2, in nervy yet resilient fashion Saturday night.

"We've played some good games this year and we've felt a little unlucky and, you know, we just hadn't put everything together yet," captain Michael Parkhurst said of the team's struggle to amass standings points.

But given Crew SC's recent proclivity to come up short more often than not, it should feel natural for its supporters to both have found solace in seeing familiar strengths on display again Saturday and wonder whether or not the harsh criticisms the team had brought upon itself can or should be quelled for good on the basis of one showing.

The offense hadn't been there, but the three most offensively-minded players each scored goals for Columbus Saturday and assisted one another in so doing.

A flummoxing liability to allow inexplicably easy scoring opportunities off set pieces had developed. Neither of David Villa's goals for NYCFC resulted from free kick or corner kick miscues (although the backline's failure to mark him tightly and allowance of the open play long crossing ball that saw Villa get his first strike are still things need to be addressed).

The squad had been exhibiting extraordinarily poor long ball passing techniques up the middle. And while the passing precision necessary to avoid offside conditions or the overshooting of recipients in stride remain priorities to improve, Crew SC launched exactly zero through balls against New York City. Beyond the exemplary performances from wingers Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay, the rapport between a high-roaming Harrison Afful and a knowledgeably anticipatory Federico Higuaín was restored and made the Crew SC attack look multi-faceted and dangerous again.

Before, there was confusion and disbelief over virtually the same corps of guys appearing sluggish and unimaginative in its attack. Now, a return to form with the possession-happy, bend-don't-break scheme that emphasizes flanking attacks under head coach Gregg Berhalter seems to have happened, a sign things can turn around for Columbus.

Berhalter himself said after Saturday's win that "If you look at expected goals versus goals in reality, you know, we were trailing [in 2016]. And we knew that the movement was good and we should be scoring more than we are. And we have quality players and we're creating quality chances, and it's a matter of time."

So does that mean this club has turned the corner and is poised to go on a tear now that the 4-2-3-1 engine is finally in gear? Or did Columbus simply enjoy a flukish and flawed victory over a NYCFC team that's known to be vulnerable to the high press while also not being particularly good at counterattacking?

It could be both.

I said at the beginning of the month that Black & Gold fans should actually freak out about their team's status quo if it couldn't manage at least seven points out of a possible 15 in April matches. In order to accomplish the 2-2-1 mark that I set out for them almost three weeks ago, Columbus needs but a single victory out of fixtures at home with Houston and on the road with Seattle.

That's certainly still attainable.

Being back home in front of its fans clearly and understandably rejuvenated the team.

"Just the overall energy, I mean, you could see it on the field, the way the guys were working for each other," said Wil Trapp after the match.

"It felt great to be at home," Meram conceded in a press conference. "We love playing here and, yeah, we had some tough games on the road, but we had a good week of training and we really wanted to come out strong and get the first goal, and we did.

"And even though they responded, we kept our heads in it and put away our chances tonight."

Salient point for Meram to emphasize, since the lack of a final flourish on attacking opportunities had certainly been a concern for Columbus. Going into Saturday's match, Crew SC's goal differential of minus-four was more an indictment of the offense than it was of the defense. Berhalter's approach is high-risk, high-reward; the rewards had been scarce of late.

Ultimately, Columbus lives and dies by making possessions count, and the defense wasn't capable of doing enough to win games singlehandedly with so little assistance from the offense. But fun fact here: Crew SC is 1-0-0 this year when they out-intercept their opponent after having enjoyed a 30-22 advantage this weekend.

To that end, the midfield battle skewing Columbus' way was instrumental for getting the better of New York City on a day when the offense and defense were both operating so dynamically inside their respective thirds.

"The way that we were pressing them and turning them over in good spots for us was key to this win," Trapp said.

Even in the absence of Tony Tchani, the complete trio of Trapp, Mohammed Saeid and Higuaín played fluidly to anticipate windows of opportunity for NYCFC and promptly close them. In matches past, one or two of the three central mids might have played well, with some dispossessions suffered and poor decision-making showcased by the other one or two guys.

"There's always cues: when to press, when a ball goes backwards, things like that. That you kind of have to read throughout the game and when one of those happens, then it's a collective effort to move forward," Trapp said. "I thought today we did a good job of reading our teammates and moving forward and doing it together because that's the only way that it works."

Parkhurst —€” the incorrect recipient of a red card in the 86th minute that has now been rescinded and applied retroactively to Tyson Wahl€ — said he felt that, despite the tense moments later on, Crew SC "came out with the right mentality tonight."

He's right. The team was clearly prepared tactically and emotionally. And now that the proverbial win monkey is off Crew SC's back, that is obviously a much easier thing for pundits to say in hindsight.

"It hurt our confidence. We were shaken a little bit because of the results and, you know, it's identical results to the first four games last year that we played, the first four away games," Berhalter said, referencing the two away draws and two away losses that Crew SC endured to begin 2015. "It hurt our confidence but in the end it's going to help us ... we played some good teams on the road, we had some good performances and we know what it takes to win games."

It took until May 16 of last year to amass that same 0-2-2 road record, so the acute panic from fans in mid-April this year makes a little more sense because the team hasn't had as many chances to be impressive and figure itself out in Columbus.

Football fundamentalists always look for improvement, so I know I've been looking to see progression and adaptation, but the medium-to-long term picture is not empirically bleak.

Really, though — across sport — can or should five games legitimately showcase the state of a team? Better yet, should we consider the FIRST five games a team has played since a months-long layoff wrapped to be indicative of anything, really? Four of Crew SC's five winless matches took place on the road. Plus, two of those hostile environments belong to teams currently sitting atop the standings of their respective conferences: Montreal and Dallas.

So, what we're saying is that Crew SC had been outdueled by the defending MLS Cup Champions, drawn the West's leader and lost to the East's leader all on the road. Failing to beat a middling Fire club in Illinois is honestly the result that Columbus faithful should be most concerned by. Dropping what seemed like a puzzler at the time to Philadelphia at home turns out to not seem as horrid as the Union sit comfortably at the 3-3-0 mark.

All right, then, basically zero reason to freak out, considering the circumstances. And we're definitely not engaging in this kind of discourse that's experienced an optimistic uptick if NYCFC skipped town with one or three points for themselves, but that didn't happen.

Game film from the NYCFC match is the unequivocal, tangible roadmap that can bring the team to that three-point feeling again, especially when momentum builds from consecutive instances of it.

"Tonight, we did enough. And I feel it's good to have a victory under the belt. Hopefully it's good for the group and gives us confidence going into [the] Houston [match]," Parkhurst said.

Houston managed to beat FC Dallas 5-0 in a match that still has me very befuddled, so I guess all bets are off if that Dynamo team manages to show up Saturday. If the Black & Gold stick to developing and employing their strengths, though, there's reason to believe Columbus may yet again be an ominous adversary on the pitch.