It will be my six thoughts filling in for Josh today.
The goals return
The offense wasn’t really firing even with Kei Kamara on the team, but the goals came on Saturday. Ola Kamara grabbed the hat trick that has eluded Kei, even scoring two with his head. It looked like 2015 out there. With 21 team shots, nine on target, the goals were going to come. The shot assists were coming from all over too. Columbus Crew SC created from set pieces, passes from the right and left channels. There were even chances created from above the 18-yard box, an area that Columbus has struggled with in 2016. It’s true that Real Salt Lake was playing shorthanded, but that was a level of complete dominance that Kyle Beckerman would have struggled to stanch.
Ola’s hat trick
Of those 21 shots, Ola took nearly 50% of them. Kamara had 10 shots, the highest by any player in MLS this year. Seven of the shots were on target, forcing acrobatic saves out of RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando. Kamara will be hard pressed to recreate that shot volume, but it’s indicative of his ability to make the right runs. Kamara struggled several times in the first half when Crew SC broke out off of turnovers, often getting in the way or not peeling off to the side. His second goal especially was night and day. With the ball played down the left channel, Kamara cut hard centrally and played a far post run. That left room for Justin Meram to run into the near left channel and provide a great scoring option. He pulled defenders out of position for the team, but was still rewarded.
The Meram Impact
Ola got the headlines, but Justin Meram may have been the best player on the field. He created the first two Crew SC goals out of individual hard work and ingenuity. No player on the team is as confident attacking players one on one. That lead to the Real Salt Lake defense getting pushed out of shape to create the chance across goal for Kamara’s first, then his defensive pressure caused the turnover that turned on to the second goal. Many of the Crew SC attacking players are similar in style. No one quite combines the defensive awareness and sheer determination to make something happen like Meram. He will have off nights, but when it works, he’s a force of nature.
Rising to the Challenge
Crew SC have often given up late goals to drop points or failed to come from behind when giving up an early goal. Saturday was shaping up the same way. After a 90 minute rain delay had suppressed a solid crowd, the early visiting goal sucked the air out of the stadium. Columbus would have 75 minutes to salvage something, but there was a distinct lack of belief everywhere except on the field. Seven minutes after Crew SC lost the advantage, they had grabbed a goal back and went ahead. For a team that has struggled epically, this was exactly what the team, and especially the fans needed. If the team makes something out of 2016, then they can look back to those seven minutes as a critical juncture.
For 60 minutes, Columbus played a complete and total game. From the 15th minute to the 75th, Crew SC scored four goals and looked as fluid on offense as they have in 2016. Once they were up 4–1 though, the old cracks started to show. The midfield struggled to track Real Salt Lake’s runners. As the visitors would pass to create angles, the Crew SC defense would track the pass, but often would lose track of the initial passer. Salt Lake could easily cut through the screen and bear down on the backline. Salt Lake would get off five shots in the final fifteen minutes, all from inside the penalty box. Even if Gaston Sauro was healthy, that's too many to keep Salt Lake off the board.
Seizing the Chance
After the slow start to the season, Gregg Berhalter turned to the bench and brought in Cedrick Mabwati and Corey Ashe to help turn the season around. Ethan Finlay and Waylon Francis found themselves on the bench after being core starters on an MLS Cup runner up team. With Mabwati on international duty and Ashe struggling with fitness, they had a chance to make a case to return to the team. Finlay struggled at times, but still got off two shots and had two more shot assists, though this may not be enough to unseat Mabwati. Francis on the other hand looked impressive as he had an assist, an interception, and four recoveries. That will put pressure on Ashe.