Columbus Crew SC, now in sole possession of last place in the league, is struggling mightily to get the results that it needs as the second half of the season begins.
If the team fails to "right the ship"—to use captain Michael Parkhurst’s phrasing—in its pursuit of a return to winning ways, the Black & Gold will be on the outside looking in when the playoffs arrive in the fall. That is not pessimism, that is fact.
It doesn’t help matters that Columbus was only able to tie Toronto FC, especially after head coach Greg Vanney opted for a healthy scratch of last year’s league MVP in Sebastian Giovinco from the match in Columbus, a decision Crew SC midfielder Wil Trapp felt was a slap in the face.
"I mean, it’s always a nice thing when that guy’s not [in the lineup], and you don’t have to play against him. But I think, for us, our main thought was it was almost disrespectful, them thinking they can come here and win the game, get three points with a depleted lineup and I think, what, 15, 16 guys on the bench?" Trapp said.
"So we tried to take it as a personal shot and use that as motivation. Got the first goal and I think it’s just disappointing to come away with only one point when we thought we should—and need to—win this game."
Columbus desperately needs a win, with the club only having won one match since the departure of star striker Kei Kamara. The lack of results is wearing on the players.
"I mean, let’s make no mistake, guys are frustrated and guys are upset. We’re not happy where we are in the standings, we’re not happy with the results we’ve been getting lately," Parkhurst said in a postgame interview Wednesday. "There’s frustration in the locker room but we’re sticking together. It’s the only way that we’re going to come out of it."
The team is still committing to the fundamentals of Berhalterian soccer. The model employs a 4-2-3-1 scheme that places great value on maintaining possession, launching open play crosses to create chances and strong defensive midfield play to allow outside backs to roam high in the wings.
Fortunately, the outside back who a) crosses balls in from the flank more than any other player in the Black & Gold and b) takes at least a handful of shots of his own each game happens to also have been the goalscorer Wednesday night. Harrison Afful booted in a wonderful volleyed strike after the Toronto defense of a Dilly Duka corner spat the ball out directly to the defender.
Afful was blunt about the goal and game: "It feels great, but I’m not happy with the results."
So, what’s next? A dejected Crew SC team drawing on valuable—and, at times, adverse—experience has to be the cornerstone of a second-half revival.
"We’ve had, unfortunately, we’ve had moments like this the past couple years, you know, two years ago I think we go 15 games without a win. Last year, we gave up a lot of goals in the middle of summer," Parkhurst said. "So we understand that there’s a lot of the season left to play but, also, the urgency’s setting in and we know that, guys know that. So there’s no doubt we’re frustrated but at the same time, the mentality of the group going into every game has been good.
"I think we can be cleaner in moments in front of their midfield and back line and really slip guys through and get better crosses in. And shoot from distance, I think that’s something that we need to do to get them to draw out a little bit more because they were just absorbing wave upon wave of pressure," Trapp said. "We need to threaten back lines from multiple angles.
"I mean, crossing is obviously one of our strong suits. But if you can get a defensive line to step up a little bit more and respect the shot from distance, then you’re going to have more space to get those crosses and slip past them." Trapp added.
The midfielder knew that Crew SC had the understanding and tools to get a better result on the night.
"I think against a back line like that [of Toronto FC], what you really want to do is get in-swinging crosses that are making their defenders face their own goal. Anything coming the opposite way, it’s easier for them to clear," Trapp explained.
He went on to specifically identify Afful and winger Justin Meram as instrumental to creating that threatening facet of the crossing game.
"You saw Harrison, a little bit more, cross it with his left foot because it just puts more pressure on the back line and I think we didn’t do enough of that. I think we really wanted to try and get Justin crossing the ball, or even shooting, from the left side because he can whip it in with his right foot."
"It always is more difficult for a defender running toward your own goal with the ball in-swung like those were," Trapp emphasized.
The dangerous, meaningful crosses were woefully scarce. Passing accuracy was high for Columbus, sitting at 86.2%, but that statistic is inflated by short passes and square balls in the midfield. Toronto was winning the majority of the aerial duels to snuff out the pushes forward.
Leveraging Meram's experience and skills takes the load off of Federico Higuain's stand-in. Mohammed Saeid, Hector Jiménez, and Dilly Duka haven't been as effective as the Argentine playmaker is in the No. 10 role when healthy. Trapp is on board with letting a much-improved-since-2014 Meram loose either from a shooting or crossing standpoint.
Another project that could yield dividends is working to boost Cedrick Mabwati’s ability to switch sides, as Meram did with Finlay out. With the tactical switch by Toronto from a 5-2-3 to the 4-2-3-1 Crew SC fans are more familiar with, Mabwati brought things to the table out wide in his side that Finlay hadn’t been able to do prior to the break.
At the end of the day, however, both coach and captain know there are no excuses for the differential between the ample talent level the team believes itself to possess and the tangible results that have played out on the pitch so far.
"It’s tough. Listen, I’m not going to say it’s been a smooth ride. I think there’s a combination of factors that have led us to not playing our best and not getting the results that we feel we should get. And, you know, for us, we think we’re a better team than where we are right now but the table doesn’t lie. It really doesn’t," Berhalter said.
Parkhurst acknowledged positives also, in that the defensive scheme Crew SC employed was largely effective, but did take ownership of the breakdown that allowed Jordan Hamilton to score and ultimately transformed a much-needed three points into a meager one.
"You know, I thought for the most part the group was good tonight. Disappointed we gave up that goal, you know, it’s something that should have never happened. I should have hit the guy in the midfield and he would have never turned. It was a good finish," Parkhurst said.
Parkhurst added, "I’m upset that we gave up that goal. I felt like it was on me. I should have ended it right before the guy turned, and nothing would have came of it. So I’m disappointed in that. You know, it’s just one of those moments where, you know, I needed to make a play, we didn’t make the play and we paid for it."
In the bigger picture, Parkhurst leans on veteran wisdom, saying he knows that it comes down to making that play as the first step on the path that leads to a win or two or three.
"It’s funny how when you’re in a good rhythm, things go your way. Balls go in, balls hit the post for the other team, just little things go your way and we had that down the stretch last year. And we’re searching for that right now."
"If we can grind out a win on Saturday or play beautifully and get a win—either way, it doesn’t matter [which]—you know, hopefully we can build off that."
It's a big if, and one that could certainly help Berhalter perform another late-season resurrection. Immediately after the game, the coach turned to that next opportunity.