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Six-Thought Box: Ch-ch-changes

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Crew SC get three points in D.C. thanks to some new wrinkles.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at D.C. United Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Columbus Crew SC went to the crumbling relic that is RFK Stadium one last time Saturday night. Both sides had underperformed to start the season, and both looked to right the skid against what would seem to be beatable opposition. Crew SC set out in a different shape than we’re used to seeing and, helped by two penalty kicks, got a 2-0 victory over D.C. United and their first three points of the season. Here are six thoughts on the match.

The times, they are a chanin’ (maybe)

So, let’s get to the obvious one. Gregg Berhalter changed his system. This isn’t the first time he’s done so, having experimented in U.S. Open Cup matches, as well as against the Vancouver Whitecaps last year, but this is the first appearance this season of the “three at the back” formation that was much hyped over the winter.

Three center-backs were deep, with Jukka Raitala and Harrison Afful playing as wing backs, bombing forward in possession but dropping back to solidify a back five on defense. Did it work? Well… if we’re judging by only the score line, it’s an obvious yes, but the answer is a bit more complicated to that.

To me this says that Gregg Berhalter knows he needs to start winning. For all my criticism of Berhalter being lots of talk and little action when it came to making changes, this shows that he is willing to pull the trigger. It would have been easy to wait on this change, especially in light of Jonathan Mensah’s suspension, but he didn’t. It was a fairly bold move to change formation during a road match, early in the season. Considering he plugged in rookie Alex Crognale (more on him later) as well, I think Berhalter has to be applauded for this move. Is his seat starting to feel a little hot? It’s impossible to say, but this move shows Gregg is not willing to wait around for results to improve, even when that means making bold and risky decisions.

Finlay fails to fit in

The big question that popped up in regard to switching to a back three/five is “who sits?” Adding in an extra defender naturally means one of your offensive players is heading to the pine, and on Saturday that player was Ethan Finlay. This raised a few eyebrows, since in all likelihood it was a choice between Finlay and Federico Higuain, and Pipa had struggled heavily in the first two matches. However, the decision turned out to be the right one.

The formation employed Higuain and Justin Meram underneath Ola Kamara, not out wide. Both players are comfortable in this role, but Finlay does not have much experience playing there, which was likely the deciding factor. I’m not buying the theory that his benching was a “message” like he got last year (when he was sat in favor of Cedric) or like Berhalter sent last week when he benched Afful.

Finlay came on for Meram around the hour mark, and it was obvious why he was second choice. He was not particularly effective once he came on. His skills just don’t suit the role he is being asked to play in that formation. His pace and dynamic movement are not best used in the deeper role, and his passing just isn’t up to snuff. I think it’s likely that he remains on the bench if Crew SC continue to roll out this formation.

This may also help with a point I brought up in previous columns. Finlay starting from the bench means there is a legitimate, game-changing sub that Berhalter can use to change up the attack when matches aren’t going his way. It’s a win-win. Will Crew SC continue to use this formation? Time will tell.

Pipa playing possum?

Over the first two weeks of the season it was obvious Federico Higuain was off the pace. Saturday night in D.C. however, he looked much more like the Pipa of old. He wasn’t perfect, by any means, but he cut down drastically on the sloppy passes and reduced turnovers, instead showing the vision we’ve come to expect from him on some pristine passes. He led the team in touches, and got all four of his shots on target. He also converted a penalty kick, placing it about as perfectly as possible, giving him 40 career goals.

On the whole, it was a fine outing from Federico, and an encouraging sight for Crew SC fans. Will this be a one-match rebound, or the start of a renaissance? Fans will be hoping for the latter.

Rookie looks to be the real deal

Columbus home-grown signing Alex Crognale made his team debut, playing the full 90 minutes as one of the three center backs, and looked right at home in his first appearance. Rookie center backs make me nervous, but Crognale shined in the spotlight, barely setting a foot wrong all match, and looking like a vast improvement over last year’s backup center-backs Tyson Wahl or Chad Barson.

He was strong in the air, which is expected of a player is size, but he also was very good with his positioning. His tackling was also solid, not diving in, instead prodding and winning the ball, which served him well on occasions D.C. got in to the box. He completed over 80 percent of his passes, won four aerial duels, and finished the match with the team’s highest rating on WhoScored (for those of you who care about that sort of thing).

I was left shocked (in the most positive way) by his performance. His composure, decision making, and solid play were far better than I was expecting. But let’s not start the hype train rolling too far yet. Should Crew SC stick with the same back three/five system, it’s likely the rookie who will be sitting, not Josh Williams. Our own Pat Murphy reported that when the team has practiced three in the back, it has been Williams, Jonathan and Nicolai Naess with the first team.

Crognale’s performance was excellent, but I am not sure one match is enough to jump him over an MLS veteran on Berhalter’s depth chart. It is, however, enough for Crew fans to feel optimistic and excited about the team’s future at center-back.

Keep it simple... please

One thing that struck me during the match was how much better Crew SC looked when the team just kept the passing and movement simple. It seems like an obvious thing to point out, but considering some of the Crew’s recent play, I think a “keep it simple stupid” moment might be needed. Higuain, despite his improved performance, still loves the “fancy pass.” That killer ball in behind, the no look dink over the top, or the big Hollywood switch, swinging the ball quickly from one side of the field to the other. These can all be effective plays, but with the team still getting on the same page, movement and position-wise, and playing a new formation to boot, those “fancy passes” ended up not working more than they worked, breaking up the flow of the game and hurting Crew SC. Naess was another who went to the big Hollywood switch too often, and it just didn’t pan out.

Keeping it simple also helped in another department. Zach Steffen was using the “boot it long” method much more this game, probably in an effort to get some pressure off of him and the backline. I was interested to see how Berhalter would react after the Houston game, and he seemed, at least for this match, to elect to go with the less pretty, more pragmatic approach, and it helped the team. They conceded some possession from it, but rarely found themselves under the kind of pressure they crumbled under in Houston. Simple = better. At least for now.

Not time to celebrate... yet

Last week I said it wasn’t time to panic, despite the terrible performance. This week I will say similar. It’s not time to start getting over-excited, raising expectations, or thinking this team is done with its “growing pains.”

It needs to be said: Crew SC beat a bad D.C. team. This was not a down and dirty, gritty performance, where the team gutted out a win over a good side. It was a game where the Black & Gold were gifted two penalty kicks by a really poor defense, and didn’t really do much else. The Crew were outshot (though they did have more on target), out possessed, and didn’t finish the few chances they created particularly well.

This team still has growing to do, particularly if the shift of formation will be a permanent (or even occasional, which I think is more likely) thing. There were times players seemed confused about where they should be, particularly Artur, who again was just kind of there. Raitala and Meram are still not on the same page, though in this new formation it’s less of a killer. In general, despite the win and some good individual performances, the team didn’t look all that inspiring.

But that’s okay. They got the win. On the road. Early in the season. At this point, that’s enough. No need to get too excited, no need to get panicked. It was better than the previous week, and really, what more can you ask for?

Stay Massive, Friends