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Six-Though Box: Columbus Crew SC fall short in jungleland

Six thoughts on Crew SC’s 2-0 loss to the Red Bulls.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at New York Red Bulls Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Columbus Crew SC took to the road again Saturday night, heading north for a meeting across the river with the New York Red Bulls. After getting back to winning ways last weekend, the Black & Gold looked to get their second road win of the season, but it was not to be. The dust has mostly settled, the smoke mostly cleared, so here are six thoughts on Crew SC’s loss to RBNY.

Early injury derails game plan

Short of being involved with a wreck on the highway before the match, the Black & Gold’s night couldn’t have gotten off to much worse of a start than it did when Brazilian midfielder Artur, went down with what appeared to be a broken wrist on what was essentially the first kick of the match. Artur was being touted as a key component for this match, likely being tasked with clamping down on RBNY’s playmaker Sacha Kljestan. That went up in a cloud of smoke less than a minute in, and the Crew never recovered.

It’s a slightly worrying testament to just how vital the young Brazilian has become so early in his Crew SC career. His versatile skill set has led to him being tasked with an immense workload both offensively and defensively, and the simple fact is that Crew SC just don’t have a like for like replacement for him. Tony Tchani was probably most similar, but he’s been sent to the Vancouver Whitecaps, meaning if Artur is set to miss any real length of time Gregg Berhalter will need to figure out a tactical change up.

The night got worse a little further in to the first half, as rookie center-back Alex Crognale suffered an injury, meaning Berhalter had to burn a second substitution before halftime. This left his hands tied for much of the rest of the match, as there is only so much you can change up with one substitution. Crew SC didn’t respond particularly well to the early adversity, and that should not be ignored, but neither should the fact that they had a very limited number of options.

Yet another slow start

At practice last week, Berhalter said his side were focused more on the positive response the team showed against Toronto FC than the fact that it started slowly. Considering the Black & Gold’s response before the half last week, it’s an understandable attitude to take. After this weekend’s match, however, I wonder if he feels the same.

Artur’s injury was obviously a shock, and the team looked understandably rattled in the immediate aftermath. Mohmmed Abu came on for Artur and is a very different type of player, leaving Wil Trapp the task of pulling the strings from deep. This didn’t factor in very much early, as Crew SC were struggling to get enough possession to get any attacks going.

The defense also failed to settle in to the game, and was punished for it after just 11 minutes. Harrison Afful pushed too high up the field, allowing Kljestan to get in behind, essentially unmarked. It was a poor defensive play all around, but after last week’s exploits you could be forgiven for thinking it might serve as a wake up call, of sorts. That wasn’t the case.

The defense continued to look shaken. There was very little pressure on the ball for long stretches, leading to Steffen being forced into making some big saves. The offense struggled in turn, as Ola Kamara was isolated up top and the team settled for hopeful long-ball passes in an attempt to get anything going. With the exception of one good move from Justin Meram, who got in behind but was stopped by Luis Robles, it was unsuccessful.

There would be no comeback this time around. Last week the team dragged itself back into the match before halftime, but this week left the field at the end of the half looking frustrated, and New York’s halftime tactical adjustments served to shut down any hope of a Crew SC comeback, despite an improved second half.

Many will feel that the freak nature of Artur’s incredibly early injury is extenuating circumstance enough to write off the team’s slow start, but I remain slightly concerned. It seems to be a recurring theme for this 2017 Crew squad, and over the course of the season that could become a real issue.

Dancing in the dark

There’s an old saying, you can’t start a fire without a spark, and on Saturday that proved to be all too true for Crew SC. Any hopes of a comeback were dashed by the team’s inability to create any particularly dangerous looking chances, especially in the first half when it was still a one-goal deficit. Federico Higuain, the man who makes the Columbus engine run, was effectively shut down by the Red Bulls defense, isoluating Kamara up top.

The offense managed just two shots on target the whole match, which is not a good enough number by any stretch. Many of the attacks in the second half ended up reverting to the “cross and hope” philosophy, very little coming through the middle. While the Black & Gold had more possession by a wide margin, and completed more passes, they were not remotely dangerous and for most of the match looked toothless in attack.

Berhalter made his best move with his one available sub, bringing on Ethan Finlay for Niko Hansen at the hour mark, but it made little difference. Finlay also failed to find his footing in the match. It leaves us asking the same question we’ve been asking after every Crew loss this year: where is the impact sub? Kekuta Manneh is expected to fill that role, but once again he didn’t travel, due to a combination of fitness concerns and unfamiliarity with the demands of Berhalter’s tactics. Would he have seen the field over Finlay on Saturday? Probably not. But he still would have presented a different option, and a different option was definitely needed.

Depending on the length of time Artur is on the shelf, it could become more and more of a pressing issue. Trapp has shown that he possesses a wide range of passing skills, but has yet to demonstrate the ability to make a large impact going forward. On nights were Higuain struggles to create, Crew SC are going to need another creative option, preferably from the middle of the field. Who that ends up being, if anyone, may end up being one of the key storylines for Crew SC as we move towards the middle of the season.

Great expectations

Crew SC’s talented young core of players has been garnering a fair share of praise. This week, however, there was a come-down. Hansen, who made such a splash in both his initial appearances, was ghost-like throughout his hour on the field Saturday. Crognale likewise struggled before his injury forced him off. Alongside Artur’s injury, this night was one to forget for the Crew’s young guns.

All things considered, however, Saturday’s performance, at least as far as the youngsters goes, was bound to happen sooner or later. The Red Bulls have been among the top teams in MLS for the last few years, and any rookies would be hard pressed to excel against them. There are going to be growing pains for any young player in MLS, particularly those who were not likely thought of as being starters from day one. Both young players have shown flashes of real quality thus far this year, and one down performance doesn’t diminish that.

With Jonathan Mensah’s impending return there was a high probability Crognale was heading back to the bench anyway, but his injury will assure that. I am more interested to see if Berhalter sticks with Hanen next week against New York City FC, or if he reverts to Ethan Finlay. He’s spoken of rotating his squad to match up well against opposition. Berhalter is a believer in the rookie, and that won’t change after one down night.

More than meets the eye

There’s always an interesting discussion to be had about statistics in soccer, especially when those stats don’t exactly match up against the “eye test.” This was the case Saturday night, as Mohammed Abu was singled out for his perceived poor play by fans, yet had one of the highest WhoScored ratings of any Crew SC player at 6.85.

Abu struggled to settle in after coming on in just the first minute and it took quite a while for him and Trapp to get on the same page. Abu’s passing this season has looked shaky, especially during his poor performance against the Chicago Fire at Toyota Park. It’s understandable, especially in light of Artur’s very good performances, that fans would remember these lows when comparing the two, but that’s not necessarily fair.

Abu took a while to settle in on Saturday night, but as the half wore on, found his feet slightly, finishing with an 80 percent pass completion rate. This number isn’t ideal, but is far from terrible. His numbers were solid but unspectacular, but many fans feel his “poor play” was a direct contributor to the loss.

And what of the team as a whole? Crew SC had nearly 60 percent of the possession in the game, and completed far more passes. These stats are right in line with the Berhalter style. As we’ve seen before, however, the attack faltered, failing to create much. So those statistics bury the lede.

Soccer is unique amongst sports, I think, in the way that one immeasurable, intangible moment of brilliance, can influence a game. There’s no metric for measuring how good a player’s passing vision is, no way to gauge how often a player is in the “right” place at the right time. These factors can sometimes be even more important than traditional statistical categories.

Tougher than the rest

This was a tough night for Crew SC. Road matches are hard enough in MLS without losing a key cog in the first minute. It was a poor performance, albeit one under tough circumstances. The real question will be: How do the Black & Gold bounce back?

A three game homestand awaits Columbus, all against Eastern Conference opposition. NYCFC, the New England Revolution and Toronto all come to town, and if Crew SC can get maximum points from those three games, it will be hard to consider them anything but contenders. I am not a fan of calling things make or break, especially in MLS, but I think it’s fair to say that this next homestand will go a long way to determining the trajectory of this team’s season. If it struggles, it could signal that the hot start has cooled, leaving the Black & Gold to scrap and claw for a middle of the pack finish.

It’s not going to be easy, especially with the mounting injury concerns. But with multiple comeback victories already this season, and the fact that Crew SC have followed every loss with a win the next week, leaves me cautiously optimistic.