Spring came to Columbus on Saturday, and so did the Portland Timbers, making their first appearance in the capitol city since the great MLS Cup letdown of 2015. Portland arrived in the midst of one of the hottest starts in the league, scoring buckets of goals, and met a Columbus Crew SC team fresh off its first win of the season, also yet to be shutout. Fans expected the scoring to continue, and they weren’t disappointed.
It was a feisty affair, with Portland scoring early with a goal that was arguably offside. Crew SC then rallied not only to reply, but take the lead, with a pair of goals, including a ridiculous one from the combination of Federico Higuain’s inch perfect pass and an immaculate Ola Kamara finish. The terrible defending bug struck right before the half, however, as Columbus allowed the Timbers to score with the last kick of the first stanza, sending the teams to the break tied. The match remained tied for the majority of the second half, with Crew SC dominating possession but not finding the back of the net, while Portland had a few half-chances and looked dangerous on the counter at times. Rookie Niko Hansen, making his Crew SC (and professional) debut, struck the winner in the 84th minute, lifting the Black & Gold to victory and handing the Timbers their first loss of the season.
Here are my six thoughts on the 3-2 victory.
Soccer is Weird (No, This Isn’t a Hanson Reference)
I have no idea how I feel about this game. That will become evident in this article.
Up until Hansen hit the winner, this was shaping up to be a very different column. This match was a strange, frustrating affair. A weak start felt like old ghosts coming back to haunt, but then the Crew… answered? And took a lead? What wizardry is this? The second goal, in particular, was top notch, both from Pipa and Ola, and may well end up the Crew SC goal of the year. The offense was gelling, and the defense, while not being impermeable, did okay enough. Steffen made big stops, including a huge save in the 31st minute to stonewall Dairon Asprilla in the box.
Portland gained a foothold in the match, however, and started to put the pressure on the Black & Gold. I began to worry. The goal came right before the half, and it felt like a gut punch. All that good work was for naught.
As the second half wore on, individual performances started to drop, and for long stretches it seemed like the Crew were content with possession with no cutting edge, and in fact looked more likely to concede despite their dominant stat line. Frustrating, maddening, and all too familiar. How can this team be doing the same things over and over again? Then, all of the sudden, out of nothing, a rookie scores a dramatic late game winner. All the wailing and gnashing of teeth (by me) and hand wringing (also by me) are now overtaken by joy, surprise, and an intense dread that the Crew are going to manage to give away another late lead.
But then they don’t.
It wasn’t a great performance, it wasn’t even all that GOOD of a performance overall, but in the end, it got three points. We’ve seen it happen so often, the team play well but don’t get the result, so to see it go the other way this time felt… well, weird. I am happy, obviously, but there were also serious concerns. Where’s the line between overlooking concerns and needless nitpicking? I just don’t know.
Crew SC Needed This Win
Make no mistake, no matter the performance, this was a big win for Columbus. Last week’s win in D.C. was important, but all things considered, United are a team that the Black & Gold probably felt the should beat, road match or not.
This game, however, was a different story. Take away the whole ‘first match in Columbus since MLS Cup’ angle. Take away the Crew SC can’t seem to beat Portland angle. This was still one of the hottest teams in MLS coming to play a Black & Gold team that has been inconsistent, at best, to start the year. For a team “still getting to know each other” to come out and overcome an early deficit AND give up a first half lead is big. Season-defining is hyperbolic, but I think it’s fair to say this is a win that Crew SC needed, and could (should) give the players a big shot of confidence for matches ahead. If Columbus pick up another couple of wins in the next few weeks, the narrative could shift from “we don’t know what we’re going to get week in week out” to “these guys may be for real”.
Tactical Changes Leave Some Struggling
Originally this thought was a long critique of several player’s performances. But come the light of morning and a second look at the match, I found that the players I had singled out were not necessarily to blame for their off nights.
Gregg Berhalter went back to his traditional setup for this match, but there were a few tactical tweaks within the familiar formation. The most obvious was with Harrison Afful, who was often tucked in centrally, almost as a third center midfielder. This was in effort to solidify the center of the park against the potent Timbers attack. It is an interesting wrinkle that we haven’t seen Berhalter deploy before, but it led to some hiccups for other players in the offense.
Ethan Finlay was perhaps most adversely impacted. With Afful not bombing down the wing as much, Finlay’s role was different. Instead of cutting inside as much he kept wider, which limited his effectiveness at times. It was noticeable that he and Higuain were not on the same page, and this was likely a contributing factor. This doesn’t explain Finlay’s biggest gaffe on the night, where early in the second half he didn’t read the play quickly enough and failed to get on the end of a Pipa through ball. It was a real chance that went begging, and it really shouldn’t have. However, outside of that mistake, most of his problems on the night probably stemmed from the instructions to stay wide.
Artur was another whose role was tweaked due to the decision to tuck in the fullbacks. The central midfielder has not quite settled in offensively with the team yet, likely because his role has been different each of the matches he’s started. On first watch, I thought he played horribly. His movement off the ball was limited to hovering in the center of the pitch, waiting to receive a pass from a teammate. He was not dynamic and didn’t stretch the play. On second watch, it was more apparent that this was by design. He was there to recycle the ball and get it to one of the playmakers, not necessarily be a playmaker himself. While I still believe that he played too slowly (and if you remember last week’s column slow = bad), on second viewing his performance was less cringe-worthy.
While there were individual lapses at times, particularly on the goals conceded, a large percentage of what I initially considered poor play was, in fact, a byproduct of a tactical tweak by Berhalter. While these issues are concerning, they are also understandable.
When is a Sub a Good One?
So, before the late game heroics of one Niko Hansen, I was fully prepared to write a blistering paragraph or two on Gregg Berhalter’s ridiculous decision to sub out Justin Meram for an untested rookie, especially with so much time still to play. Events that unfolded obviously negated that tirade, but it left me wondering: just how do we judge the effectiveness of a substitution anyway?
Let me phrase it this way: The Crew seemed to be toothless for large spells of time after the substitution, not really creating much from open play. This isn’t a knock on Hansen, but more a testament to what Justin Meram brings to the table. Had Niko not scored the late goal, his only real contribution was a very fine defensive play in his own penalty box.
But he did score. He had one chance, and he took it. He was in the right place, at the right time, and he netted the goal. Would Meram have done the same? I think so, but in the end it doesn’t matter, because the rookie was out there, and he scored.
But does that make it a good sub? This leads directly to my next thought.
Do Any of These Gripes Really Matter?
Short answer- No, probably not. As many of you readers (and hopefully podcast listeners) know, I am more of a cynic than most. The above points are efforts towards that end. But, as I said in thought one, this is one of those rare times where the result is actually better than the performance, not worse, so it must be said… those gripes don’t really matter.
Was it good? Not in my opinion. There were a couple of bright spots and a couple of down nights. But in the end, it was good enough because the team won. The way Crew SC struggled last season, and with the inconsistency to start this one, three points are reason enough to be happy, no matter what nitpicking people like me do. If the team were performing each week, then it’s a different story. But for a team that has struggled to find its feet, any win is a good win.
It’s a very different conversation if the game ends 2-2. There are still lingering concerns over Columbus and legitimate questions to be asked, and a tie or loss here would have magnified them. But they didn’t tie. They didn’t lose. They won. And that’s enough.
The Black & Gold Must Build on This
Crew SC have to push on from here. It’s really that simple. This was a big win, a statement win, even, but the team have to continue to improve on the field. If the Black & Gold are going to compete with the top teams of the East, they need wins like this consistently. Squeaking out a late goal after struggling to create may happen occasionally, but for the team to win consistently they’ll have to be tighter at the back and more creative in attack. There are too many good teams in this league to count on squeaking out results on guts and determination week in and week out. Getting good results when the team doesn’t play its best is the sign of a good team. Using those results to improve the performance next time out is the sign of a great team. What are the Crew this year? Time will tell.
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