Columbus Crew SC took a three-game winning streak north, to the Second City or thereabouts, to take on the Chicago Fire at Toyota Park on Saturday. Playing in Bridgeview has not traditionally been kind to the Crew, and this match was no exception.
It was a scrappy sort of game, without much beautiful soccer on display. Both sides were up for the fight, however, and what the match lacked in finesse it made up for in intensity. It was also a close affair, neither side able to dominate. In the end, the contest was decided by a mistake.
Dax McCarty was allowed room to operate and picked out a perfect through-ball, splitting Hector Jimenez and Alex Crognale, finding Nemanja Nikolic in the 18-yard box. The striker hit a low shot at Zack Steffen and the first-year starter let it under him. It was an effort the keeper probably should have kept out, and it ended up being decisive.
That’s not to say the Black & Gold were toothless. Despite several lineup changes, Columbus still managed to create a few chances, particularly in the second stanza. It just never quite clicked for Crew SC, who fell for just the second time this season. Here are six thoughts from a disappointing Black & Gold result.
One tweak too many
I’ve discussed Gregg Berhalter’s tactical adjustments so far this year at great length. In sharp contrast to his previous strategy of sticking to his guns and playing the game one way regardless of opponent, this season’s Crew SC team has played slightly differently in every match this season, catering tactics to their specific opponent. For most of the season so far, Gregg has gotten it right. Saturday in Bridgeview, he did not.
It should be noted from the off that several changes were forced in this match. While a capable player at a number of positions, no one can really argue that Hector Jimenez brings the same level of offensive spark that Harrison Afful brings to the team. Most surprisingly, however, was the absence of Federico Higuain, out due to an ankle injury that had plagued him for the past couple of weeks. This change, more than any other, put Crew SC at a disadvantage from the word go.
The team struggled early to adapt to this new 4-3-3 setup, with Mohammed Abu particularly having a difficult time. It was an unfamiliar role for the Ghanaian, who has spent most of his career as the most defensive minded midfielder on the pitch for his team. Being tasked with more impetus going forward seemed to unsettle him, and his passing suffered the most.
The decision to set up in a 4-3-3 was likely a mistake to begin with, as it played in to the strengths of Chicago’s formation, as they set up with three center backs. The offense primarily relied on getting the ball to wingers Justin Meram or Ethan Finlay, then aiming a cross in at the lone striker, who was obviously outnumbered. There wasn’t enough help from the center of midfield to even out the numbers in the penalty box, so the offense often stagnated. The combination of bad matchup tactically and an unfamiliar set up for his players ended up equating to Berhalter’s tinkering doing more harm than good on this occasion.
This team needs Pipa
No absence on the pitch was felt more than Higuain’s. After a rocky start to the season, there was much speculating, even from me, that he may be past his prime. This match showed that even if that is the case, Crew SC still need Higuain. The were formation issues, but even simpler than that is the fact that this Crew SC team just couldn’t figure out how to create with their No. 10 absent.
Justin Meram is capable of playing that role, as he’s shown on occasion for the Black & Gold and more routinely for Iraq, but was not called on to do so in Bridgeview. Perhaps with Kekuta Manneh available, he would have been, but even he is not a like-for-like with Higuain. So much of this team’s offense, their creative spark, runs through Pipa, that without his services it was a struggle. His ability to pull the strings from midfield, read the game, and his range of passing were sorely missed.
Pipa’s age is a concern, and a long-term plan for replacing him is probably chief among Gregg Berhalter’s thoughts as the season progresses. If it wasn’t before, it likely will be after this match.
What might have been (wherefore art thou, Manneh?)
Kekutah Manneh wasn’t quite ready to slot in to the Black & Gold lineup for this one, even as a substitute, but this was a game where Columbus could have used him. Had he been available from the start of the match it could have possibly negated the need to play an unfamiliar formation, allowing Meram to occupy the Higuain role, with Manneh slotting in on the wing. However, this would have not only cut down on the confusion and the turnovers created by the confusion, but also allowed Artur to continue in the role he excelled at last week, buzzing from sideline to sideline, causing the opposition midfield problems. The domino effect from plugging Manneh in to the familiar formation could have drastically altered the match.
Even if he was only fit to play a substitute role, I believe he could have had a major impact. If there was ever a match where Crew SC’s lack of game changer on the bench was exposed, it was this one. Berhalter elected to sub in rookie Nico Hansen, which allowed the Black & Gold to return to the more familiar formation, with Meram sliding inside. This provided a small amount of spark, but Hansen was unable to get much going. It’s unfair to expect the rookie to make an earth-shattering impact every time he comes on the pitch, and it’s probably fair to say that appearances like Saturday’s in Bridgeview will be the more common sight.
Had Manneh been available he would have brought a real, dynamic, game-changing type of option that the Columbus bench so desperately needed. Crew SC fans must continue to hope he makes his debut soon, so there is at least some form of impact option.
Ethan Finlay has taken a fair share of heat this year, some deserved and some less so. It’s fair to say he’s struggled at times, and on the field Saturday it was obvious that frustration was beginning to set in.
Finlay’s performance on the night was inconsistent, with long periods of ghost-like ineffectiveness interrupted by a couple of moments of real quality, which sadly weren’t rewarded. He had a couple of really solid runs in behind the defense and put in decent crosses, but the runners weren’t in the right place. It kind of summed up his season, in a way. No one has ever been able to fault his effort, but his consistency has been suspect and it appears to be getting to him.
Maybe it’s the arrival of Manneh weighing on his mind, as minutes on the wing may become scarce soon. Maybe it’s just accumulated frustration from sub-standard performances. Whatever the reason, I am interested to see how he reacts if it continues. Some players are able to channel frustration into improved performances. Others let it impact them, and their performances continue to spiral. It could be nothing, but it could also be a storyline to watch going forward.
The good, the bad, the youthfulness
Speaking of up and down games, let’s talk Zach Steffen. The 22-year-old keeper has been pretty good so far this season, with a couple of clean sheets to his name, and budding chemistry with his back line. He’s also had some missteps, and shown an occasional lapse in decision making that is not all that out of the ordinary for a young keeper. This match was a capsule of that.
Steffen had a couple of really good saves. His reactions and athleticism have been standout throughout the first month of the season, and against the Fire they were on full display. He was very vocal in directing his backline to clear balls away, something that many suggested he needed work on before the season started. It’s encouraging to see the second-year player seems to be addressing these perceived shortcomings.
He did, however, have a howler on the goal. Simple fact is, he probably should have kept it out. It happens to every keeper, young or old, at some point. Sadly (for Crew fans), it was the lone goal of the match, meaning that a perhaps unfair share of the blame will be heaped upon the young keeper’s shoulders. How will he respond to that? From all accounts Steffen is a very professional young man, so my hope is that he shrugs it off and moves on to the next one.
The simple fact is that this is life with a developing young goalie. He’s immensely talented, even his doubters have begun to see that, but due to his inexperience mistakes like Saturday’s will happen from time to time. It will be up to Steffen and the Crew SC defense to limit them, and limit the impact that they have on the match when they do occur.
Just a bump in the road
So, this was a bummer of a match, but I don’t think it was a disaster. This isn’t a sign that the team isn’t as good as we thought they were. This wasn’t a waffle-stomping or a total outgunning like we saw in Houston. It was a bad night for the Black & Gold, but the team didn’t play particularly bad. The group lacked spark for most of the match, but still had enough to create (but not finish) a chance or two.
Having seen plenty of bad Crew SC losses over the years, I feel very confident in my ability to say this was not a bad Crew loss. It was just a loss, and over the course of the season, those happen. This team has started off far better than I (and many others) expected, and I believe the groups has earned the benefit of the doubt that they will learn from the mistakes that they made and push on next week against Toronto FC.
Sometimes a loss is just a loss, not the end of the world.
Agree? Disagree? Am I once again off my rocker? Leave a comment below or join the discussion on Twitter by tagging @MassiveReport and @KrisLandis.
And, as always, Stay Massive.