There’s been a lot at stake for a while for Columbus Crew SC, but it came to a head on Wednesday at D.C. United.
A 3-0 loss is not a mathematical playoff eliminator, but the scenario was clear — defeat the team holding the final playoff spot and make a six-point swing, massively increasing the playoff odds. Lose, and stare your season’s mortality in the face.
What went wrong in the mid-week contest? Here are some thoughts.
After finding some success in the attack — enough to win games — in a short, recent stint, on Wednesday Crew SC looked again like the team it has for much of the 2016 season. Early on it struck me as too casual in the attack. That developed into plenty of possession but not enough killer instinct or decisive movement. Again the Black & Gold were settling for possession, and there was a lot of it in the first half (nearly 70 percent midway through the game).
When you possess the ball 70 percent of the time and don’t find the back of the net, that’s a bad sign. And unlike some trips to the nation’s capital last year, this wasn’t a case of an attack without answers against a bunkering side. United didn’t bunker. Crew SC just wasn’t good enough.
Columbus was out-shot 12-11. It managed just two shots on target. When going through video of the game, I couldn’t even find a chance worthy of re-living here. Maybe the “best” pressure on goal came on a second-half free kick when a Wil Trapp header from 18 yards skimmed wide.
While the counter attack had served the club so well in recent weeks, it virtually abandoned that approach. Outside of a half-chance in the first minute of the second half that came on the counter, it was a non-factor. And so was Columbus’ offense.
Trapp back, Pipa not
Trapp was back in the starting 11 for Columbus. I thought it was a solid return. Outside of one bad turnover that gave D.C. United an opportunity, he fell back into his role smoothly. He had a number of nice passes that sent Columbus the other way. It’s just that nothing was happening in the attacking third once the ball was down there.
Federico Higuain did not return to the gameday 18. It’s a safe bet he will not this season (maybe not at all, but that’s a discussion for another day). Again it was Tony Tchani in the central attacking midfield role, and while I left the jury out on that a week ago, a decision is in — it’s not working.
I don’t so much blame Tchani for that. It’s a role that doesn’t fit his skillset. I thought he made a couple of decent passes in the attacking third, but his strength as a passer is straight, cutting balls best served at longer distances. Playing him higher up the field gives him a shorter field to work on, cutting the legs out from under his best passes. He’s not a short-pass guy. He doesn’t work in tight spaces. He’s not thinking outside the box.
Not every player on the field needs to do those things, but in that CAM role you need that. It’s not that Tchani was playing outside of himself, it’s that he was playing within his ability at a spot that needs something else. And when the Black & Gold sat mostly in possession, the puzzle pieces just didn’t click together.
Clark comes through
If there was a bright spot on Wednesday night, it was Steve Clark, who on a couple of occasions kept his team in the game.
That’s one of his best saves of the season. It came completely against the run of play in the first half.
Later in the game, Clark disrupted this opportunity:
By that point United had begun to really assert its presence in the game. Remember this clip, because the combination will rear its head again lower on this page.
It says a lot that Columbus had 68-plus percent of the possession in the first half, and the best opportunity still went to D.C. But if that wasn’t frustrating enough, Crew SC’s second half was pretty miserable.
As tends to happen with this team, it still won the second-half possession battle, with 54.1 percent, but take out the final minutes of trying to flail out of a big hole, possession was actually quite even. Tut the change from the first half is quite telling.
The home side decided it wanted to win the second half, while Columbus looked mostly disinterested until it was too late. In the process, the Black & Gold were out-shot 6-5 in the second half, putting no shots on goal.
Think about that for a second. Even after going down a goal and throwing everyone forward in an attempt to save not just the game but also, maybe, the season, Crew SC was STILL unable to even put a shot on target.
The game was there for the taking at halftime. One team took it, the other did not.
Remember that first Luciano Acosta and Lloyd Sam link-up in the box? (see the earlier clip)
Well, if you don’t remember that one, you should remember this one:
Left back Corey Ashe gets caught up in worrying what Acosta is going to do on the opposite side of the field and forgets about Sam. The result is exactly what I warned of in my game preview — giving Acosta the chance to face up a defender and create a chance.
That said, this is a goal where I tip my hat to the opponent. This is what Acosta does and part of the reason D.C. has been able to develop into a slightly different team as the season has gone on; and that run by Sam is excellent, timing it perfectly to ghost past Ashe until it was too late for Columbus to recover.
This goal changed everything, forcing an already underwhelming Crew SC side to throw all caution to the wind.
Had Columbus turned ball domination into a lead at any time in the first 60 minutes or so, this could have been a very different game. Instead, the Black & Gold faced desperate times in the final 20 minutes, responding by recklessly charging forward — something D.C. United made them pay for with a pair of easily-finished chances on the counter.
The result, in turn, makes an already desperate situation for Crew SC even more desperate.
Columbus is not yet eliminated from the playoffs, but it is all but. This is a team with the grave dug and one foot in while shaking hands with Death itself.
It has felt for some time as if the club was playing for its playoff life, but this is really it. The lifeline is now a dangling cobweb.