Raise your hand if you saw that coming?
If we’re being realistic, the New England Revolution were victimized by the same things that have troubled them all season — defensive breakdowns and an inability to finish opportunities.
Of course, Columbus Crew SC is quite familiar with those ailments, and they’ve buried the Black & Gold even deeper in the standings than the Revs.
What we saw on Saturday at Foxborough Stadium was something we haven’t seen from Crew SC all season, really, and I don’t just mean a clean sheet and all three points on the road.
Here are some of my thoughts after a somewhat surprising 2-0 win over New England.
Swim, not sink
For a team that has been plain awful on the road, it was impressive to see the team stay above water when they had the option to sink or swim.
Columbus was good for much of the match, but the first five minutes or so weren’t promising. Crew SC was outworked in the midfield during that time, but they turned things around and got an early goal to completely change confidence and game state. The visitors did things mostly well, the Revs characteristically didn’t finish the opportunities they had (just six of 17 shots on frame) and the Black & Gold collected a huge three points on the road.
One of the biggest conundrums of the Gregg Berhalter era has been that when things aren’t working, Crew SC just keeps trying the same thing. That’s not to say there aren’t minor tweaks, but on a larger scale, it’s always the same. The cry has always been, "What’s Plan B?"
Has the biggest hole the club has ever been in under Berhalter forced him to approach things a little differently?
I’m not sure about that yet, but on Saturday Columbus seemed more willing to attack on the counter. That’s how the Black & Gold scored their first, critical goal, and that, to me, was almost as exciting as the fact the goal happened.
That’s an outstanding pass from stand-in left back Hector Jimenez to spring Meram on the counter. (For Jimenez’ shortcomings as a defender, he was good in possession and getting the ball forward.)
I’d love to see more of this sort of thing.
Why that matters
The reason the counter can be so effective is because its explosive. Crew SC can gain some of the same benefits just by being explosive in possession, but too often has not. Ethan Finlay’s resurgence these last two games have been in large part because he’s attacked assertively and explosively, with and without the ball.
Columbus has maintained its possession advantage throughout the season — it does the possession stat as well as any team in MLS. But too often its been slow and methodical and, in turn, predictable.
The following opportunity went by the wayside, and much of the explosive buildup comes just before the clip begins, but this all came because of quick passing. The ball moved by the second touch every time, and went from left to right quickly.
More on being different
Not only did Crew SC score on the counter, they also turned the high press into a goal. One might call Columbus a team that opportunistically presses. A better way to put it is that it’s only a small part of the game plan, and they don’t tend to do it too assertively.
This is not to say Columbus needs to high press all the time to be a good attacking team, but on Federico Higuain’s goal we saw it work incredibly well when the Black & Gold pressed with their hair on fire.
Not only does Ola Kamara force the turnover in a great attacking position, but Columbus has numbers in the box almost immediately to stretch what defensive numbers New England did have back.
Again, it’s not about wholesale changes. It’s about more often finding different ways to create, even when not in possession of the ball. It’s not a coincidence that the club earned a win while scoring two goals in ways not associated with Crew SC.
To visualize the difference, look at Columbus’ dashboard this week versus even last week (a decent effort) against New York City FC:
In the second, from Saturday, Columbus is not doing as much in the midfield, but rather hitting more quickly from the wings. Also noticeable is that the team is, in general, sitting deeper.
The Park-Naess Monster
A shutout on the road is nothing to thumb your nose at, and credit has to go to the center back pairing of Michael Parkhurst and Nicolai Naess.
In his second start for the club, Naess continued to look like he’s going to be exactly what fans hoped he would be — a top-notch center back. He continued to be mobile, good on the ball and strong positionally, and he seems to read the game very well. Occasionally he doesn’t get as strong a clearance on the ball as is warranted, but he seems to get to the right spots to make plays very consistently.
My favorite moment of the game? It might have been Naess working the ball out of the back in the 58th minute. (Spoiler alert: look for the sweet backheel under pressure)
Parkhurst, meanwhile, has taken a lot of heat from fans this season. Part of that is deserved, though I still believe that the perception would be a little different if he had a strong, consistent partnership back there. Instead, it’s been a constant shuffle, and mostly of non-starting-caliber guys.
On Saturday he deserved plenty of praise for his overall play, and certainly for the two plays he made on the goal line to save a pair of Revolution goals.
A tip of the hat to you, sir.
Are things really shifting?
We’ve been waiting all season for the club to snap out of it — whatever it has been that’s ailing the team. It looked like maybe that would never happen. Maybe something was completely broken and the only fix would be major changes in the offseason.
Maybe that’s still the case, but two promising performances in a row might be a signal that something has clicked and that maybe, just maybe, that was enough to build some confidence and get on a roll.
Will it stick? Is it already too late to matter? We’ll just have to wait and see.