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6-Thought Box: Control, concussions and a big win for Crew SC against San Jose

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Columbus got three desperately needed points against the Earthquakes. We offer a brief breakdown of said win.

MLS: San Jose Earthquakes at Columbus Crew SC Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Dominating

This wasn’t a blowout, but it wasn’t likely to ever be against a San Jose side that plays stiff defense and is conservative going forward, especially on the road. I’m guessing Dominic Kinnear hasn’t been blown out too many times in his career, even when he was fielding lesser talent.

But it was a mostly dominating, controlled victory in a must-win situation for Columbus. The Earthquakes’ presence was felt a little more in the second half, but in general, it was all Black & Gold. Crew SC had 67.1 percent possession in the first 45 minutes, and over that same time out-shot the Quakes 13-3. The final numbers were less dominant, but by scoring the first goal Columbus was able to play the game on its own terms, something it hasn’t done a ton in 2016.

Sometimes the heat map doesn’t lie:

Crew SC (left) vs. San Jose (right)

Continued resurgence

Those who have been paying attention don’t need to be told that the sliver of hope that has come for Crew SC during the last month or so has coincided with an uptick in play from the team’s wingers, especially Ethan Finlay. After two seasons in which Finlay and Justin Meram, unexpectedly, rose to the top of the leage in terms of pairs of attackings wings, 2016 has been less bright. I’ve questioned whether two players who had out-stripped their expected statistical models in terms of goals and assists were finally regressing to the mean.

To his credit, Meram has been pretty good this season, even if his goal-scoring numbers were down (consider that eight assists on a team that has struggled is a pretty darn good number). Finlay, though, disappointed enough that he wasn’t even a shoe-in to start every week for a stretch of the season.

That’s changed. And it’s not just about scoring goals, which he has done during the last month or so. It’s also about his assertiveness on the field and his energy both on and off the ball, creating issues for opposing back lines.

With those wide players accounting for Crew SC’s production on Saturday, it remains hard to unravel the connection between the duo’s success and the team’s.

Jahn

The relatively recent signing of Adam Jahn wasn’t one most would call exciting. It was clear he wasn’t going to change the fortunes of the team, but he did fill a role — depth at a woefully thin position and a big, box-friendly No. 9.

On Saturday he got a rare start and looked pretty comfortable in a cross-heavy attack. He did a good job getting into positions in the box and getting onto the end of aerial balls. Against an Earthquake defense we knew would sit back and be tough to break down, he was a good target for balls from outside the 18-yard box.

Jahn isn’t a particularly strong hold-up forward, but he still offers a target that lets the team play deeper balls in because he can head the ball back or flick it on for others. Here’s some heatmap comparison between Ola Kamara and Jahn:

Ola Kamara vs. New England
Adam Jahn vs. San Jose

Both of these came in 2-0 Crew SC wins. It’s obvious how the two strikers play differently, and Jahn provided a different type of target, which for a team that has often earned the "predictable" tag, at least is a little something different.

Trapp

This is scary. In the ninth minute, Wil Trapp went up for a ball in the air, heads collided and the Black & Gold defensive midfielder went down and was clearly a little woozy afterward. He left the game with a concussion.

Trapp missed 13 games last year due to a concussion. Crew SC’s record splits with and without the homegrown player speaks for itself: 10-2-4 with Trapp, 5-6-7 without him. That’s a stark contrast. There’s no denying Trapp’s 2016 has been a little inconsistent at times, but his role is wholly unique and his. In fact, there are few D-mids anywhere in MLS that play quite like he does; he’s vital to Gregg Berhalter’s system. His occasional bobbles this season combined with his unflashy play means some people may not recognize how important he is, but his defensive coverage and his ability to transition the team from defense to offense are so critical. If he misses any length of time, his absence will be felt.

More importantly, it could cast the rest of his career in doubt. I will preface this by saying we know nothing about the severity of his situation right now. But with that said, concussions aren’t something you mess around with. It is the accumulation of them, no necessarily the severity, that have cut short the careers of many players. The damage that piles up can be scary and career-altering. This is Trapp’s second concussion in the last year and a half. It would be heartbreaking to see a player with such a promising future and such a big part in the club have his career cut short, whether that’s because of this knock, the next one or the one after that.

The Tchani experiment that never happened

Trapp’s short night changed the team’s personnel positioning, and the opportunity to see Tony Tchani moonlighting as an attacking midfielder ended after nine minutes. That’s kind of a shame because I was kind of fascinated by it.

When I first saw the lineup ahead of the game, my first reaction was that we were back to the stretch of the season where Columbus had no defense-splitting playmaker and basically just filled the central attacking role with bodies. But once the opening whistle blew, I suddenly had a change of heart — I was curious.

It kind of made sense. We knew San Jose wasn’t likely coming to really play. It would be conservative and bunkered and difficult to breakdown. Tchani playing high offered a couple of things: height high up the field for crosses in and long legs to help press higher up the field when useful (as I wrote previewing the game, the Quakes back line can be susceptible to the press).

I quickly convinced myself that maybe it made sense as an option to give Federico Higuain rest.

We never got to find out.

Finding the way

Two wins in three games — I don’t need to tell you math majors out there that when you win just five games all season, this doesn’t happen often. Three in four? Well, that’s hard to imagine right now.

Next week Crew SC hits the road to take on the Los Angeles Galaxy. LA will be far less shorthanded than the Black & Gold and will be playing at home. A single point for Columbus should be considered a coup.

That’s not to say the game should be considered a throwaway — the Galaxy are beatable — but more important than carrying momentum from the win over San Jose might be the ability to retain confidence regardless of what happens in Los Angeles.

Following that game, Columbus will play six straight against teams that are either out of or battling hard for a playoff spot. That is the stretch that will determine how things play out. But after a win on Saturday, at least, for now, hope remains.