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Six-Thought Box: Tic-tac-toe, three in a row

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Patrick talks another win for the top-of-the-table Crew SC.

A cold, gray day turned to sunshine for Columbus Crew SC fans when the Black & Gold earned a 2-0 win over Orlando City SC on Saturday afternoon.

Winger Justin Meram was the man of the match with his two-goal performance, one finish on either side of halftime, but it was a team effort that earned Crew SC its third win of the year.

Artur and Federico Higuain each won tackles near midfield and separately sprang Meram for the goals. The defense was solid, frustrating one of Major League Soccer’s best strikers in the match.

Most importantly, it was another three points for Columbus, who now sit atop the MLS table.

While Kris Landis takes a week off from his usual piece, I give you my thoughts from another shutout victory for the Black & Gold.

New Highs

Through the first five games a year ago, Crew SC was 0-3-2. That put Columbus behind the eight ball for the season and the team never responded. Over the same stretch in 2017, the Black & Gold are 3-1-1 and confidence is high at MAPFRE Stadium.

Saturday’s win also marked the first time since 2014 that Crew SC won three consecutive games. The club did that over the first and final stretch of that year, but couldn’t repeat the feat over the last two seasons.

It’s still too early in the MLS season to make conclusions about any side, but Black & Gold fans have a reason to be happy with these recent results. The season may not have started the way the team, or the supporters, would have hoped but it’s been the turnaround everyone involved with the organization was hoping for after those first two matches.

Defensive logjam

When Crew SC made its first five additions of the offseason all defensive players, the focus was clear. After giving up 58 goals a year ago, Gregg Berhalter and his staff knew if the team was to return to the playoffs in 2017, it would have to be improved defensively.

While the Black & Gold have still conceded six goals in five games, Columbus has played two of the best offenses in the league in the Portland Timbers and the Houston Dynamo, conceding five goals in those games. Other than those two matches, Crew SC gave up one goal to the Chicago Fire and shutout D.C. United and Orlando.

The most impressive performance so far has come from rookie Alex Crognale, who stepped in for the injured Jonathan Mensah yet again on Saturday. In 197 minutes played, Crew SC have conceded zero goals with the Homegrown product on the field.

With Jonathan likely coming back soon, Berhalter has an interesting decision to make. While Crognale has been good, there’s a reason the Black & Gold paid Designated Player money for Jonathan. With rookie Lalas Abubakar and veteran Josh Williams also available for selection, it’s becoming apparent that Columbus has depth at the position.

After last season, a question on who to play along the backline is a good thing.

Dominating the midfield

While Meram was obviously the name on the score sheet for Crew SC against City, he did not earn the win alone. A big factor in the victory was how the Black & Gold controlled the center of the park.

Defensive midfielder Wil Trapp did his usual thing, but was excellent in possession, completing 93 percent of his 81 passes and not allowing Orlando to get out on the counter.

Artur seems to get better each game as he gets more comfortable with his teammates and Columbus’ system. He registered his first MLS assist on Meram’s first goal and completed 49 of his 55 pass attempts, and they weren’t just short passes either as he continues to show his range.

Berhalter was excited about the addition of Artur in the offseason and fans are starting to see why. With opening-day starter Mohammed Abu now on the bench, Crew SC has the middle of the field locked down

As the season goes along and the two starters get more and more in sync, this pairing could become one of the better young partnerships in MLS.

Offensive diversity

Fun fact for you: The nine goals scored through the first five games of 2017 is the most for Crew SC since 2010.

Justin Meram, Ola Kamara, Federico Higuain and Ethan Finlay all have scored goals already this year for Columbus. Niko Hansen had the winner a week ago. The Black & Gold just added a player with 22 goals in his MLS career in Kekuta Manneh.

To say that this offense appears to be one of the best in the league is an understatement.

It’s not just the number of goal scorers either, but how the players are scoring. In the most recent match, Meram scored with either foot and from close range. Finlay’s goal came with his head. Kamara has finished as a poacher, from the penalty spot and with a fantastic volley. Higuain is pulling all the strings.

Offense has never been an issue for this team under Berhalter, but to see the goals flowing so early in the year is a positive sign.

Progress?

Not everything about Saturday’s game (or the start to the season) was positive. After taking an early lead, Columbus struggled to put a stranglehold on the match over the first 45 minutes. Orlando went into the break and adjusted, pressuring Crew SC high in the second half and making life difficult for the Black & Gold.

While the defense did a good job of not allowing City many good looks at goal, the equalizer should have come. OCSC forward Cyle Larin got in behind the backline and, uncharacteristically, decided to cross the ball when everyone in MAPFRE Stadium — including his teammates — thought he was going to shoot.

In the end, Federico Higuain won the ball in midfield and drove into Orlando territory, finding Justin Meram for the insurance goal, but it was far from an impressive second half where the Black & Gold were out-possessed and out-shot.

This reminded me of the season opener, where the Chicago Fire made similar tactical adjustments in the second half that took Crew SC out of its game and turned a home win into a draw. This time, the team adjusted and were able to lock down defensively and play out of the norm, electing to clear the ball long more frequently and defending well as a team.

In MLS, sometimes you’re going to have to grind out wins and that’s what we saw from Columbus on Saturday.

Credit to Raitala

Jukka Raitala returned to the Crew SC starting lineup on Saturday after missing the previous week due to international duty. Having played his entire career in Europe, traveling this far to rejoin his club after representing his national team was new to him.

The left back responded well, putting in another solid 90-minute performance and nearly scoring his first MLS goal with a volley late in the second half that hit off the crossbar.

Raitala has adjusted well to life in MLS and continues to develop his chemistry with Justin Meram on the left side of the field. Getting over the hurdle of cross-continental travel is one of the many obstacles he will continue to face, but he handled it like a veteran.

With Waylon Francis getting fit again and Harrison Afful playing well on the right, not to mention rookie Connor Maloney having already played 45 minutes and Hector Jimenez as a possibility, Gregg Berhalter has built quite a stable of full backs.