It was a cold, overcast afternoon this Saturday in Columbus, but that didn’t stop throngs of black and gold clad supporters from flocking to the ‘Fre to celebrate one of the most wonderful days of the year, Crewsmas. The annual season opener is always a special occasion, and the 2017 edition had the added intrigue of being a rivalry game, as Columbus Crew SC’s enemies from the Windy City (or thereabouts) the Chicago Fire came to town.
The game started off positively for the Black & Gold, with Ethan Finlay netting a 17th minute header. The first half was essentially oneway traffic, but the second half proved a different story. David Accam scored in the 73rd minute to split the points.
Here are six thoughts on Crew SC’s first match of 2017
Gregg Berhalter got out-coached
The first half went just about according to plan for head coach Gregg Berhalter. His side retained possession, created chances, held the Fire to relatively few looks at goal, and converted one of their chances into a goal. The Black & Gold hit the ground running, quite literally, with sharp passing from the midfield and incisive runs from wingers Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay. Berhalter seemed to have his squad fired up for the season opener, and the looked like a team that wanted to make a statement.
They were assisted, partially, by a very poor first half from Chicago, who looked listless at times. They allowed Crew SC to dictate the play, sitting back behind the ball, not employing a high press, and generally reacting rather than attacking. This allowed Crew SC to do what they do best — pass the ball around, get wide, and create chances.
The second half was something different entirely.
Veljko Paunovic made several tactical tweaks at half-time that Crew SC, and more specifically Berhalter, had no answers for. A switch in formation led to wider play and instantly produced more chances, and on defense the Fire began to pressure the Crew high up the field, producing several turnovers in dangerous areas. The very comfortable looking Black & Gold of the first half found themselves under immense pressure, and the momentum began to swing to the men from the Midway.
While these changes were obvious to me, Berhalter, as has so often been the case in his tenure, he stuck to his guns, his system, and his plan. Columbus tried to continue playing essentially the same way, out of the back under the pressure, but found it hard going. The team was not helped by the (likely pre-planned) substitution of Ola Kamara for Adam Jahn due to fitness. Kamara looked dangerous and a threat to goal. Jahn… didn’t.
The simple fact is that Gregg Berhalter did not adjust well enough to the changes his counterpart made in the second half, and it might just have turned a win in to a draw
Taking positives from a loss... er... tie...
There were a lot of questions surrounding this team coming in to Crewsmas 2017. With so many new pieces many, myself among them, wondered how they’d play together. The answer is… fairly well.
One question focused on the two central partnerships, Nico Naess and Jonathan Mensah in defense and Wil Trapp and Mohammed Abu in midfield. Both parings acquitted themselves quite well overall, with the midfield duo looking particularly promising. Abu looked like an MLS quality player from the first whistle, quietly putting in solid work on both sides of the ball. While he lacks the physical dynamism of Tony Tchani, he was a solid counterpart to Wil Trapp, who put in a workmanlike performance in his first match as Crew SC Captain.
The defensive duo looked fairly solid, with a few reservations. Mensah was the physical presence we expected, and Naess continued his solid positional defending we saw from him last year.
Another new player, Jukka Raitala, also looked a natural fit for the Berhalter system, and seemed to have a solid understanding of when to go forward and when to stay back.
While neither are new, both Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram were positives from this draw. Many attributed at least part of last year’s struggles to the under-performance of Finlay, but Saturday he put in a typical hard-working shift and showed flashes of his quality that Crew fans have come to expect. A surprising header in the box opened his account for the year, and his chemistry with Harrison Afful seemed to be improved over last year as well.
Meram, for his part, contributed the quality cross Finlay converted, and caused problems for the Chicago defense with his dribbling skill and runs. Ola Kamara didn’t look one hundred percent, but also showed flashes of quality as well, which may bode well for the Crew SC attack this season.
All that being said…
This team is not the finished product
It wasn’t all puppy-dogs and rainbows out there. While the team looked better than I expected, there were definitely areas that needed improving, more or less across the board.
While Naess and Mensah seemed to gel fairly well at the back, there were several times a runner got in behind, only to be thwarted by the offside flag of the assistant referee. While playing that game may have worked out on Crewsmas, against the David Villa’s or Sebastian Giovinco’s of the world it would be near suicidal. Mensah was also quite shaky at times on the ball, misplacing several passes and turning the ball over entirely too often for a Designated Player. He and Harrison Afful both could have done much better on the Fire goal, though the blame can’t be laid squarely on either one.
Federico Higuain, so crucial to the Crew SC attack, also had a rocky game. He looked hungry to prove himself after a down year in which he missed much of it to injury, and perhaps was putting too much pressure on himself, as he looked to be forcing it at times. He misplaced several passes in decidedly non-Pipa like fashion, and generally struggled to get in to the match. While he worked hard on both sides of the ball, which is always encouraging, he was far from effective. Crew fans will hope he shakes off the rust quickly, because the offense goes though him.
One area where Raitala definitely needs work, however, is in his rapport with Meram. The two were just not on the same wavelength out there, and it showed. Both have real match-changing quality, but if they can’t get on the same page, it won’t matter at all.
Speaking of not on the same page, the much-hyped Brazilian midfielder Artur made his debut, and didn’t seem to be in the same book as his teammates. It was probably too soon for the young defensive (?) midfielder to be appearing, but Berhalter is incredibly high on him, and probably thought he could steady the ship. It didn’t quite go that way. Artur misplaced passes, made the wrong runs, and generally looked not quite ready for primetime. It was likely just a case of not having enough time training with his new team-mates, but it has to be said: it was an inauspicious debut for the youngster.
FOUR- STICK TO THE PLAN (BERHALTER BALL CAN STILL WORK)
Stick to the Plan (Behalter ball can still work)
So let’s talk about the goal. It was perhaps the most Berhalterian goal ever scored, and proof that “the system” can still be effective. A long stretch of possession led to getting the ball wide, a cross came in, it was headed home.
Now some of the credit for this goal has to go the Chicago defense for being so accommodating, but it was still a well executed run of play from Crew SC. The passing was good, the movement was good, the right run was made, the cross was excellent, and it was finished well. This just proves that despite all the talk (a lot of which came from me) of Berhalter’s system being figured out, it can still produce results.
The ‘right’ stuff
Much of the Black & Gold’s early dominance came via the righthand side, where Afful ran rampant. He had what amounted to the freedom of MAPFRE Stadium for much of the first half, and caused the Chicago defense all sorts of headaches. His speed was a well-known commodity, and he put it to good use Saturday. His passing looked good, and his understanding with Finlay in front of him looked much improved.
Afful took a nasty but inadvertent cleating which he had to run off, and that may have impacted his play the rest of the way. At the start of the second half there was more of an effort to get Raitala involved, either due to Afful’s injury or general game planning, but the team’s attack seemed to suffer for it.
If Afful continues his first-half level of play in future games, good things will happen for Crew SC.
What is going on with Tony Tchani?
There was much speculation on what the Crew SC team sheet would look like, but I feel it’s pretty safe to say no one really expected Tony Tchani, key contributor for Berhalter’s entire tenure, to be left out of the 18 entirely.
He was not listed on any injury reports, so it is assumed that his absence is performance-based. While he didn’t cover himself in glory in preseason, Tchani is a dynamic player that, on his day, can be a game-changer.
With Berhalter obviously high on both Abu and Artur, it seems Tchani may be the odd man out of the midfield. It will be interesting to see what, if any future Tchani has with Crew SC, and if he is surplus to requirements, what Berhalter may get for him.
Agree? Disagree? Did I miss something incredibly important? Leave us a comment below or join the discussion on Twitter at @MassiveReport.
Until next week- Stay Massive