As Columbus Crew SC was busy underwhelming against Toronto FC on Sunday at BMO Field in Toronto, I brainstormed six thoughts. Instead, I found myself coming back to two — ‘Man, TFC, with its MVP attacker and youthfully enthusiatic midfield, is way more fun to watch than Columbus right now,’ and, ‘TFC sure looks like it’s enjoying playing soccer way more than Columbus right now.’
It’s not a real fun time to be a Crew SC fan.
In the end, I came up with six thoughts on the Black & Gold’s performance in a 3-0 loss. Here they are.
It only took eight minutes
Regardless of what Gregg Berhalter says, Columbus is a fragile team right now. There’s no way that it can possibly be confident when it’s forgotten what the taste of victory is like, or the feel of turning hard work into a positive result; when it knows it’s blown leads in great situations before.
So giving up the opening goal on the road only eight minutes in is a killer. The game’s not really over, but right now it’s hard to believe that.
This goal was created because Marky Delgado simply out-works Tony Tchani for the ball. Deflection or not, that’s where it starts, creating a chance for Sebastian Giovinco to get into space, just as he wants. From the second it left his foot, I said out loud, "Holy $#!&." I knew what was about to happen, both in that minute and those to follow.
Effort and know-how
So, about Delgado plucking the ball from Tchani...
It just felt like a game (again) where the Black & Gold were out-worked by their opponent. The first goal only seemed to energize Toronto, and that made things worse.
There’s talent on the Crew SC roster, but once the game starts the club just seems to be behind everyone else in terms of effort and awareness. Too much is happening a beat or two later than it needs to — the players aren’t seeing things develop fast enough. That shouldn’t happen when most have played in Gregg Berhalter’s system for two years.
Contrast that with Giovinco’s goal — TFC’s second. The Italian's movement is so well choreographed that it begins before this clip begins, at least two passes before he gets the ball:
What you don't see is that when the ball enters the attacking third, Giovinco is near the 6-yard box. He tracks back to about 25 yards out and shows to the ball. He immediately puts his head up and instantaneously makes a decision — explode and pass, then receive the pass back.
There’s a sense that from the second he left the 6-yard area, he already had things playing out in his head. And everyone else kept the play moving quickly.
Columbus desperately needs that sort of thinking about the game. Even half of Giovinco’s soccer brain would probably do. I might even settle for just a handful of 1-2 link-ups at the top of the 18-yard box at this point.
Once again, Columbus won the possession battle (54.5%-45.5%). Once again I ask, to what end? Even with those numbers, it didn’t feel like a game the midfield won. In fact, it largely felt like Toronto’s inexperienced midfield (featuring two rookies and a young Marky Delgado) was the better, or at least made better plays.
Here is the chart of top pass combinations in the game:
Not surprisingly, it’s dominated by Columbus. Yet it’s so often not attack-minded. Now, nobody can attack for 90 minutes; it will always be a small percentage, and possession lends itself to a conservative approach. But of 13 combos on that list, only two seem likely to have attacking ramifications: Federico Higuain to Harrison Afful (13) on overlaps and Afful to Cedrick Mabwati (11) going up the right side. Tchani to Waylon Francis (12) could, but also could be simple recycles.
Meanwhile, with much fewer passes, Toronto FC manages to get three true attacking combos here: Justin Morrow to Jonathan Osorio (15), Drew Moor to Osorio (12) and Tsubasa Endoh to Giovinco (12).
Playing style has a lot — most everything — to do with this, but that’s exactly the point — the Black & Gold are too often settling and not often enough going for the jugular.
Here are the player dashboards for Columbus’ three attacking midfielders who started this game:
None of this is covered in glory, as they say, but the eye test says Pipa makes this attack better and the charting supports that.
Higuain created two chances (completed passes that led to shots) and completed three passes into the box, plus a shot on goal (also a chance or two in which he played a great ball but an offside flag eliminate a shot/goal). You can see how his intent changes depending on where he is on the field, and his passes become increasingly forward the higher he gets. He’s also completing some difficult passes (in context of distance).
Justin Meram, meanwhile, completed just one pass into the 18-yard box (a chance created) and put one shot on frame. That’s a problem. Now, important work can be done outside the box, but it’s telling that he’s not doing things to help penetrate the defense. Plus, with a player like Ola Kamara, who is going to create chances with movement INTO the box and not going to beat players 1-v-1, it’s especially problematic if players aren’t getting the ball into the box successfully.
Then there’s Mabwati, who got subbed out at halftime, explaining the significant difference in actions compared to the other two. What’s astounding to me, though, is the type of actions. Look at all the back passes. Is that the best use of a guy with speed and some 1-v-1 ability? Or maybe Morrow just gets that much credit defensively.
Watching the game, I was frustrated with how little Cedrick was taking on defenders. Looking at the pass chart is even more mind-boggling.
There are a lot of things wrong with this Crew SC attack right now.
Steve Clark made his 300th save for #CrewSC tonight. Did so in 89 games and under 3 years.— Patrick Murphy (@_Pat_Murphy) August 1, 2016
Something to get excited about, right? Oh, it doesn’t make you feel better about this season? And it is due in part to the fact that Crew SC has allowed too many shots?
Oh, OK. Carry on.
(Addendum: That’s not commentary on Clark’s play. He’s had a strong season. More a tongue-in-cheek look at the context of the season. Please, don’t angry-tweet me, Clark supporters.)