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Six-Thought Box: The kids of Columbus

Six thoughts on Saturday’s Crew SC vs TFC tilt.

PHOTOS – Columbus Crew SC vs Toronto FC

Columbus Crew SC came home to MAPFRE Stadium looking to rebound from a disappointing loss 1-0 to the Chicago Fire last weekend, but were faced with a tough task in a Toronto FC team featuring Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, and Michael Bradley.

The match started off poorly for the home side, as the 21st minute saw Altidore out-jump Ola Kamara for a corner from a header top open the scoring. It was the cherry on top of a terrible sundae for the Black & Gold, who were lethargic, hardly looking in the game for the first 25-30 minutes.

Crew SC turned it around by scoring two goals in seven minutes, starting with a Kamara tap in at the 37 minute mark thanks to an impressive run and pass from Niko Hansen. Justin Meram then scored on a corner just seven minutes later, putting home Alex Crognale’s header back towards goal.

The second half saw a limited number of chances for both sides, but no goals, giving Columbus three points at the expense of their Canadian counterparts, who left the MAPFRE Stadium with nothing more than its first loss of the season.

Here are six thoughts on the home victory:

Another slow start

I honestly don’t know if Crew SC realized this match kicked off at 8 pm. For the first 25 to 30 minutes they slept walked through the match, with the lone exception being Hansen’s foray down the right wing on the counter. The defense, in particular, looked out of sorts from the opening whistle. The usually steady Nicolai Naess in particular looked off the pace of the match. His decision making when it came to passes and clearances were suspect.

It was not the first time the Black & Gold have come out flat footed to start a match this season. In Houston, the team conceded a remarkably early goal and never recovered. Against Portland at MAPFRE Crew SC answered almost immediately.

It took slightly longer on Saturday, but Gregg Berhalter will be happy to see his team responding positively to conceding early goals. Stuttering out of the gate can be a real problem for a team, but only if they fail to bounce back. I’m interested to see if the coming weeks bring an increased focus on starting hot, rather than playing reactively.

3G: MLS’s tinkerman

Berhalter has turned heads this season due to the sheer number of tweaks he has made to his side. Be it big lineup changes or small, tactical based shifts, Berhalter is yet to really set his side up the same way twice this season. Coming from a man with a reputation for steadfastly sticking to his tactical guns, this has been a surprise to many. Sometimes these changes have worked wonderfully, as in D.C. or at home against Orlando City, and other times they’ve failed completely, like they did last week against the Fire.

This week Berhalter elected to go with Hansen over Ethan Finlay, giving the rookie his first start and raising a few eyebrows in the process. The decision ended up paying off, as Hansen was the only player to make any sort of dynamic impact for the Black & Gold in the first 30 minutes before providing the assist for Kamara with a ball that was so perfectly placed that it was almost impossible to miss.

This wasn’t the only adjustment he made, however. After taking the lead back, Berhalter presumably used his half time team talk to reorient his side with a view of holding the advantage. After the break his side pressed higher defensively, which unsettled TFC and broke up the rhythm The Reds settled into in the first half. Harrison Afful played higher and more centrally, giving Crew SC an extra man in midfield. This helped combat the positional advantage that Toronto enjoyed for much of the first half.

After the first match of the year, when Berhalter didn’t adjust to the Fire’s tactical changes, I was worried that he would continue to hold fast in his ideal way of playing. I could not have been more wrong. Berhalter has shown this season that not only is he willing to adjust his play to the opposition, but also able to adapt to changes on the fly. He hasn’t gotten them all right, but he’s far more flexible than many, including myself, gave him credit for. And that is a very good thing.

Youth movement

With the emergence of first round draft pick Niko Hansen, Homegrown center-back Alex Crognale, and Brazilian loanee Artur, Crew SC have found themselves with a plethora of young, exciting talent. With Kekuta Manneh, still only 22 years old, yet to debut, and captain Wil Trapp still only 24, this gives Crew SC a very promising core to build around (assuming Manneh re-signs and Artur’s loan deal has some sort of buy option).

The partnership of Trapp and Artur, in particular, is something to be very excited about. The Brazilian struggled to start Saturday’s match, as did just about the whole team, but settled in as it progressed. He and Trapp have really begun to click as a tandem the last few weeks, giving the Columbus creative players a platform to build on in the center of the park. Both are solid passers of the ball, with an ability to hit a variety of passes, not just short balls, and I am excited to see more passes from deep, especially if Hansen continues to start and be a dynamic threat.

Crognale at the back has shown himself to be ready for the big stage since stepping on the pitch the first time, showing a real chemistry with college teammate Zack Steffen (who also happens to only be 22), as well as with Naess. When Jonathan Mensah returns from injury, it may make for a tough selection for Berhalter to make. Even if Crognale sits for a few games, the experience he’s received and chemistry he built will serve the young center back well in the years to come. He appears to have all the tools to be a top-level MLS talent in the not too distant future, and I don’t think it’s unrealistic to expect him to be a regular starter for Crew SC in the next couple of years, if not sooner.

Niko Hansen (He’s so hot right now)

Sorry if you were looking for an Mmmbop reference, but I think we used them all on the podcast.

Let’s talk a little more about Hansen. After his debut goal I advised caution, as I didn’t think putting the expectation of being an impact player right from the off was reasonable based on one appearance. Turns out, maybe I was being a little too cautious.

Hansen has shown real, dynamic ability every time he takes the field. Reports around the draft described him as a Meram type, which seems to be a fair comparison. He seems to rely on speed a little more than Meram, who favors dribbling trickery, but appears to have a similar knack of knowing when to make the run, and where to make it to. He is yet to seem over-awed by the occasion, even with his first start coming against the likes of Giovinco and Bradley.

The rookie earned the start, according to Berhalter, due to his good performances and effort in practice. There’s been some speculation that the move was also intended to be a wakeup call to Finlay, ala Afful being subbed off at halftime in Houston earlier this season. Finlay came on at the hour mark and had a decent showing, but with Hansen’s great game, he may find himself riding the pine again next week.

It’s a good problem for Berhalter to have, and I’m interested to see how it plays out. It’s not entirely reasonable to expect a rookie to continue to play lights out every week, but Hansen has shown he has the talent to make an impact. What will his role be going forward? Only one man knows for sure, and somehow I doubt he’s going to tell us.

Bend but don’t break

This season has not been one full of defensive master-classes for Crew SC, at least in the traditional sense. Barring one very good performance (against Orlando) and one game against a toothless offense (United) the Black & Gold’s defensive philosophy has been bend but don’t break. For the most part, it’s worked.

I’ve been fortunate to head to practice a few times this year, and every time I’ve heard Berhalter talk about his team having to stop player a specific player. It’s always been about “containment,” not outright shutting them down. This was on display Saturday, as Giovinco, perhaps MLS’s best player, still had his looks at goal, but they were both not particularly great and few and far between. Altidore was also very limited, his goal coming from a corner, not a built up move.

Despite conceding a goal, Berhalter will likely be at least content with his side’s defensive performance, if for no other reason than they didn’t concede a late equalizer. Protecting leads was a real Achilles heel for Crew SC last year, but Saturday saw them close out the match in decisive fashion. The bend but don’t break philosophy takes pressure off a defense still learning to play alongside each other, which may be the difference between last year’s collapses and this year’s finishing the job. Is it a viable strategy for a whole season? Results from the first month lead me to believe it may well be.

Zack comes up big

I’ve been light on praise for Crew SC’s first year starting goalkeeper in this column because I wanted to emphasize his performance in a thought of its own. Steffen has had his ups and downs this season, but he came up HUGE on Saturday night at a time when his backline really needed him to.

Shortly after the opening goal, which he wasn’t really at fault for, Giovinco had what was probably his best chance of the match. In the 25th minute he hit a screamer that Steffen was at full stretch to stop, which he did by the slimmest of margins. It was a save many MLS goalies would fail to make, and one that really kept Crew SC in the match.

If the Black & Gold had conceded again so quickly, the game could well have gotten out of hand. We’ve seen so often what a one-two punch can do to a team’s morale, and with Columbus already struggling to get any offense going giving up another goal would have been disastrous. The young keeper came up huge when it mattered.

Steffen has taken some flak for a few of the mistakes he’s made this year. He remains a raw talent, with a lot of potential, but even early days in this season, I see signs of improvement in key areas. His command of the box seems to be improving, and he appears far more decisive than he did during the first couple of matches this season. There were many questions in Crew SC fans’ minds in the offseason about the goalkeeping situation, but I think it’s fare to say that Steffen is showing why Berhalter put his faith in him. Assuming the upward trajectory continues, Steffen could develop in to another in the long line of top class Black & Gold keepers.

Agree? Disagree? Am I totally off base? Drop us a comment below.