With all the disappointment early in the season, it's hard to be anything but satisfied by a point on the road against a very strong team after Columbus Crew SC earned a 1-1 draw at FC Dallas. Still, when three points seemed there for the taking after an hour-long lead, there's bound to be disappointment as well. Especially with the Black & Gold still looking for their first win of the season.
Here are a few takeaways from Saturday's result.
The brilliance of Pipa
Higuain may be playing as good as he ever has in a #CrewSC shirt. His 2016 has been exceptional.— Patrick Guldan (@GuldanMR) April 3, 2016
He might be right. Last season was hit or miss from Federico Higuain — sometimes he was on and other times he was invisible. This season has seen a string of strong performances from the Argentine playmaker.
This weekend was no different. It's almost a shame to see that effort go without three points. Pipa did exactly what CCSC needs him to — control tempo, see what others don't and put his teammates in a position to score. He did it over and over again against Dallas, assisting on Meram's goal and putting Ethan Finlay and Kei Kamara in spots where they should have scored. The fact they didn't is its own problem, but Higuain did his part.
Here's one of two great balls he played to Finlay.
Time to get the shoes shined
...Because Columbus could use some polish on its finishing.
Here's a look at the shot chart from Saturday:
It's interesting that for most of the game Crew SC looked more like the Crew SC we expect, and yet its shot total is half of what we've become accustomed to. They were, however, high-percentage opportunities. While FC Dallas took 21 shots, more than half came from outside the box (although one of those set up the game-tying goal).
Although the eight total shots by the Black & Gold were lower than usual, six on target is about the norm. Yet Columbus still converted on half as many as they should have based on baseline percentages.
Another thing to note looking at the shot chart is the clustering of shot targets — all central, and generally taken from a central location. If you don't make the goalkeeper move, he's going to have a much better opportunity to save the shot, and on Saturday Chris Seitz did.
This attacking performance was more like vintage Crew under Gregg Berhalter (the speed of play in build up was excellent for large stretches of the match), but the final moment is still wanting.
The Tchani for Meram swap
The game changed after Justin Meram came off for Tony Tchani in the 68th minute. The swap moved Mohammed Saeid on to the wing, with the obvious intent of shoring things up defensively to hold on to a 1-0 lead that had been in place since the 9th minute. It didn't work.
Instead, the team seemed to lose its rhythm, was out-shot 7-1 after the 62nd minute (I know, game state, but that's too early for that) and, ultimately, Tchani was partially culpable for the tying goal.
Was it a matter of shifting to a defensive mindset too early instead of continuing to take the game to Dallas? Was it a matter of Saeid being less comfortable on the wing than in a more box-to-box central role? Was it a matter of Tchani having not been with the team for a good chunk of the previous week of preperation? Whatever it was, it shifted the game just enough to give Dallas a chance, and that's a team that's too good to even leave the door unlocked.
It also made it clear how valuable Meram is to Crew SC soccer. There was plenty of discussion about that left wing position after Hector Jimenez started in Meram's place in the first two games, but I saw the same thing on Saturday that I saw in Meram's substitute appearances early — he is an integral part of the team's attacking flair. He tries things, he has a good relationship with Higuain and Waylon Francis around him and he helps the attack run at a higher gear. Even the FC Dallas television announcers noticed that the foot came off the gas a little without Meram's influence.
Playing with an early goal
What a pleasant change to actually be playing from the lead. Part of the reason Columbus was able to settle into the game the way it wanted to was because it was ahead nine minutes in, and that was critical on the road. Without that, there may have been zero points instead of one.
No, Crew SC did not hold on to the lead, but one of the things that will get the club out of its points funk will be consistently being able to play from the lead. This was a step in the right direction against a good team.
Getting a little luck
This is the second week that CCSC has come away with some sort of points, and the second week it faced a team that was missing key personnel. You don' t have a good season without a little luck, and Columbus got some when Mauro Diaz did not play for Dallas.
With the way Diaz has been playing this season, it's not unreasonable to say that his presence (or absence) in the lineup is the difference of close to a goal a game.
Without him, Dallas moved out of its traditional 4-2-3-1. What was presented as a bucket 4-4-2 actually played a little more like a 4-3-3, with a trio of defensive midfielders in Carlos Gruezo, Kellyn Acosta and Victor Ulloa, while wide attackers Michael Barrios and Fabian Castillo roamed the flanks and striker Maximilliano Urruti sometimes dropped to help fill a little of the area on the field that Diaz would have been in and allow his wingers to cut in.
It's certainly something that Dallas is capable of doing, and the team has had to play without Diaz often in the past when he's been out with injury. But we've also seen in the past that there have been noticeable adjustment periods for Dallas sans the Unicorn. Columbus may have reaped those benefits.
All teams turn the ball over on occasion in the midfield, but offering up the ball in bad spots on the field has been an issue that rears its ugly head week after week for Crew SC.
At halftime on Saturday I tweeted that the first-half performance was good and a bit of a relief after a dull affair in Chicago two weeks earlier, but I also said that Dallas was too good a team for the Black & Gold to continue turning the ball over at midfield (or worse) at the rate it was.
Then, in the 78th minute, a very bad long ball from Wil Trapp out of the back line was picked off in Columbus' half of the field and quickly knocked to Urruti, who need just two touches before slamming it off the post from long range. Tesho Akindele cleaned up the rebound to make sure Crew SC still remains without a three-point haul.
Yes, Tchani looks like he's out for a morning stroll as Urruti runs into space to strike the ball. Yes, the entire team stops moving once the ball closes in on the post. But that all starts with a bad turnover when the entire team is looking to get into the attack.
For a team that is looking for consistency in defensive performance, it will never find it if continued turnovers hang the back line out to dry.