They did it. Kei Kamara was traded and Columbus Crew SC didn't implode.
After a week in which everyone was very distracted from the reason the club exists — to play soccer games — the Black & Gold got back on the field and settled for a 1-1 draw at home against the league-leading Colorado Rapids.
All things considered, it wasn't a terrible performance and provided an opportunity to see the team make some changes on the field.
There were certainly some positives, but also familiar trouble. In the end, Columbus got this one out of the way and a new-ish era is underway. We make some observations about Saturday's action.
At least by Crew SC standards.
We've rarely seen Gregg Berhalter make sweeping changes in his lineup, but Saturday saw as many changes in one fell swoop as ever.
Obviously one of those was forced by the trade of Kei Kamara, as Ola Kamara stepped into the starting lineup. Another was an alteration from the last month, but a return to the norm as Gaston Sauro was back from injury. But there were also three lineup selections that were based on nothing more than manager selection — the continued inclusion of Mohammed Saied as well as Cory Ashe and Cedrick Mabwati.
After two months of disappointment and one week of controversy, it gave the lineup a fresh feel.
The descent of Tony Tchani
What, exactly, is going on with the defensive midfielder?
For a second game in a row, Tchani was not included in the gameday 18. He was also not included on the injury report. While Tchani did miss a chunk of time due to injury, he also returned to the lineup a couple of weeks ago, got the start and played 70 minutes. We haven't even seen him since.
Tchani was very good last year, until he gave up on a ball he thought went into touch in MLS Cup. This season he was less consistent before getting injured. But the team has struggled and Berhalter obviously feels the midfielder is not carrying his weight. Or maybe there's more to it. But it sure has been a precipitous fall and casts major questions about midfield depth right now, as well as the team's bite.
All in all, a decent debut for Ola Kamara as the lead striker. While the Black & Gold still attempted as many crosses as ever (27), a change in approach was still pretty evident. There were a few bright moments of central interplay, and many of the crosses were to feet, as opposed to floated. It's still a work in progress, but even though Kamara didn't find a goal and Columbus didn't win, it didn't feel like a disaster either.
Consider that it was an up and down game without much sustained possession for any length of time (though a stretch of possession late in the second half for Crew SC was a positive), and one would think Kamara will have more opportunities during a more typical possession performance by Columbus.
As it was, Kamara got four shots, with two on goal, one blocked and one off target. I thought his movement was pretty good and think his versatility can create problems for opposing defenses, whether he's dropping deep, dragging defenders with runs or pulling out to the wing. There's reason to feel like the attack can have success with him in the fold. Only time will tell, but it's a start.
A positive impact on the left
The left side of the field was reshaped for Columbus, and it worked out well. Ashe got a second consecutive start over Waylon Francis (another choice definitely worth talking about) and he worked hard both ways, didn't make bad turnovers to get caught up high, read the Rapid offense well and had a couple of key tackles. He just always seemed to be in the right place.
Cedrick was probably Crew SC's best player in the first half, certainly among attackers. He stretched the field well and worked hard, which paid off on his goal.
Also worth noting that the team's passing completion percentage of 78 percent is below it's average. Some of that had to do with an organized defense by Colorado, but it's interesting to note that the right side was not strong, with Harrison Afful completing 69 percent and Justin Meram at 67 percent. Kamara was at 40 percent on just 10 passes; the former Kamara was typically at about 75 percent with at least twice as many passes (obviously his hold-up play had a lot to do with that). It's worth keeping an eye on that to see whether it was a one-off thing against a good opponent, or whether it will be a continued learning curve for guys combining differently.
Another set-piece failure
The question, I guess, is how many times I'll write about set pieces this season.
Once again Columbus was bitten by a set-piece goal, this time on a corner kick. Give Kevin Doyle credit. His timing and positioning was great, pulling back off the shoulder to find space and putting a great header on goal. But when Crew SC is troubled by set pieces as often as it is, there are no excuses.
It' hard to get a good look at exactly what happened, but it looks like Gaston Sauro may get caught ball watching for just a split instant, allowing Doyle just enough room to pull off and get onto the ball uncontested. You can also see Kamara flailing at the air behind Doyle in a fruitless header attempt — just how much will Columbus miss Kei Kamara's set-piece defense?
Satisfaction with a point?
There was so much to take in from this game (so much I couldn't possibly touch on them all here), but the bottom line, I think, is this: Take away the name of the opponent and simply consider that Columbus played the team that is currently the best in MLS, put in a sound performance and got a draw out of it, despite personnel changes and a week of distractions. Most people would probably be OK with that.
The last week turned, in large part, into Kei vs. Pipa. The bottom line is that both players are very good at what they do, and both are/were critical to the club. But there's only one player in black and gold (and white and yellow and periwinkle blue) that can make this pass: