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Six Thought Box: A Hard Night in Houston

Six Thoughts on Crew SC’s defeat in the lone star state.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Houston Dynamo Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Columbus Crew SC took the trip south to Texas to meet up with the Houston Dynamo on Saturday night. The Black & Gold looked to improve on a week one performance that had a few positives, but quite a few negatives as well. It was a wet and rainy night, and one that Crew SC (and their fans) would much rather forget.

An absurdly early goal put Crew SC in a quick hole, and despite dominating possession and creating a few chances, they were unable to break through before giving up a second after some abysmal corner defending. A Jonathan Mensah red card came late, followed by a complete consolation goal for Columbus, leaving fans and commentators alike wondering, “What the heck was up with that game?”

Here are six thoughts on the performance.

Confusion Abounds

Confusing is a good word to describe this game. Columbus looked surprised and confused by Houston’s choice of tactics, which confused me, as I know for a fact Gregg Berhalter knew what to expect from Houston. He talked about it after practice on Tuesday.

Perhaps part of that is shell shock from giving up such a ridiculously early goal, but the confusion on how to deal with the Dynamo continued on for a large portion of the match. Nowhere was it more clear than on Houston’s second goal.

Fans will hope that these woes, particularly on set pieces, are just a product of the team still learning to play with each other. However, in my opinion, it’s something to keep an eye on.

We need to talk about Pipa

I am a Federico Higuain guy. Since his arrival, he has been one of my favorite players, and last year during “Penalty-gate” I sided firmly with him. He has been the guy who makes the Crew go, and (all of this in my opinion of course) one of the best players in the league. On podcast and Twitter alike I defended him and his play against detractors.

However, I’m afraid defending Higuain has become an untenable position. In match one he looked off the pace, but hungry. He turned the ball over plenty, but was still trying to get in good places, still reading the game fairly well. During this Houston match, however… it was bad.

He was, essentially, a non-factor. He still took up his normal role with the team, but he had essentially no impact on the game. Watching on TV as opposed to the stands, I was struck with how slow his decision-making had become. He was holding the ball just a touch too long, taking that extra split-second to decide where/when to place the ball. It is to be expected that as a player ages he becomes physically slower, but the fact that Higuain is apparently becoming mentally slower is… troubling. What does Coach Berhalter do in this situation? Funny you ask, since that leads directly to…

Making an impact (or not)

This Crew SC team lacks any sort of “impact sub”. Looking at the bench for Crew SC Saturday night the only two real offensive minded players were Adam Jahn and Nico Hansen. Jahn has shown that he is a decent enough “body sub,” someone to put out when a large, battering ram type of player is needed. But as we saw last week, he is not dynamic enough to give Crew SC a lift when the chips are down. He can get in to good positions and possibly finish chances, but he won’t create them.

Hansen is a relative unknown, a rookie who has drawn comparisons with Justin Meram as far as style of play. He may well develop in to a legitimate threat, as Meram did, but it is unrealistic and unfair to expect a rookie forward to jump right in to making a huge impact in MLS matches. This leaves Crew SC in a really bad place late on in matches.

Part of this woe comes from the injury to Designated Player Gason Sauro. With his considerable contract, he is a big cap hit, and having to replace him probably took up more cap room than Berhalter would have liked, limiting resources elsewhere. Questions about roster construction must remain, though, especially with a player like Tony Tchani frozen out of the 18 due to the additions in the center of the park. Was there really a need for so many centeral midfielders, or even central defenders? Could the resources used there be better spent on an “impact” wide player or forward?

These are, of course, hypothetical musings. As the season unfolds the Black & Gold could be well served by the depth they’ve accumulated at those positions. With the summer transfer window still in play, the team could make moves. But as of now, they are lacking a game-changer off the bench, and for a team that failed to get off the starting line in Houston, that is a problem.

An Afful sub

Speaking of substitutions, Harrison Afful was replaced at halftime by Connor Maloney, a rookie right back (who used to be a forward). Like many other Crew fans, I assumed the worst when I saw this sub. An injury of some kind was discovered at half time, and one of the Crew’s biggest weapons is now on the shelf. Turns out, there was no injury. It was a “performance-related” sub, according to Berhalter.

Uh, what?

Afful didn’t have a particularly stellar half, true, but he was far from poor. And while Maloney didn’t look terrible out there, he was in no way an improvement over Afful. Maloney also didn’t play any differently than Afful was asked to, despite being a forward in college, so it wasn’t a tactical change. It was, in short, a message. And that’s worrisome.

Afful was the best player on the pitch during the first half of the Crewsmas day draw with the Fire, and is a legitimate game changer on his day. What has Afful done to deserve having a message sent by subbing him off? Is there a locker room issue? Or, alternatively, did Afful just draw the short straw when Berhalter decided to send the message that no-one’s spot is safe? It’s something to watch.

Tyler Deric hates Columbus

The game could have turned out very differently if not for Houston goalkeeper Tyler Deric. It seems like every time Houston and Columbus play Deric is a big part of the story, either for getting sent off (as he did last year) or for standing on his head (as he did in 2015). This weekend it was the latter.

Deric made a handful of saves when the match was still 1-0 that kept the game level. Crew SC were dominating possession and creating a few chances, and should one of them have gone in momentum could have swung the Crew’s way.

Deric was credited with only three saves, but faced five shots on target. With all the storylines emerging from this game, it will probably be forgotten that for a fair few minutes in the first half Crew SC were in control, and could have taken the game by the throat if not for the work of Deric.

Don’t Panic

Despite the real concerns after this match, it’s far too soon to panic. It was a poor performance, there is no doubt about that, but this was always going to be an uphill struggle for a Crew SC team still learning how to play together. While some of the individual mistakes (Trapp’s hospital ball to Steffens that led to the first Houston goal, Meram’s confusion on the corner) were glaring, particularly coming from veterans, many of the Crew’s struggles can still be attributed to “growing pains” as the squad comes together.

While that rationale definitely should have a limited shelf life so it doesn’t become a crutch, I think for this game it’s an acceptable notion. Playing a high-pressuring team, on the road, early in the season would be a struggle for a Berhalter side that is used to playing together. For one that is still getting used to “the system”? Well, we saw the result.

It was a bad performance, but an expected one. The sky isn’t falling. At least not yet.

Agree? Disagree? Drop us a comment below or reach out via Twitter to @MassiveReport. I’m @krislandis.

Stay Massive, friends.