Going behind is never fun, especially early in a match. It puts a team in a hole that the side then has to dig out of if a point, or three, is to be rescued.
Saturday’s loss to New York City FC marked the sixth time that Gregg Berhalter’s Columbus Crew SC side has conceded the first goal this year. The defeat dropped the team to 4-4-1 on the year, meaning Crew SC have conceded first in two-thirds of its MLS matches this season.
By any reckoning this is a troubling statistic, and entering the grind of the MLS summer schedule, could end up being one of, if not the biggest problem facing the team in its 2017 season.
With four of the six “first goals” conceded by Columbus coming before the 15 minute mark, the Black & Gold are setting themselves up for failure. Playing from behind unsettles the team and changes the game plan. For a team such as Crew SC, which is built on keeping possession and breaking the opposition down with patient passing, it can be especially problematic, as now patient build up is a luxury that has a finite shelf life. Even the most well-coached teams would start to feel that urgency to equalize and start forcing the play, getting away from the game plan.
This is not a recipe for success.
It can be hard to diagnose the cause of this trend. Is it a coaching issue? A concentration issue?
“It’s a mentality thing,” captain Wil Trapp said.“We’re very aware of it. It’s something we’ve been working on pretty heavily.”
Berhalter downplayed its significance however, remaining focused on his team’s response.
“You always want to be the team to score first,” he said. “But I’m happy with the response, to get back to 2-1 against Toronto, against Portland, then 2-1 against New York (City FC). I like that response, I like how we deal with adversity.”
Berhalter does have a point. His team came back to win after conceding the first goal twice, against Portland and Toronto, and also took the lead after conceding first against New York City this past weekend. Winning 33 percent of the games in which you concede first is not a terrible stat, as MLS teams conceding first have come back to win only 17 percent of the time this season.
But is 33 percent really good enough to not be concerned by the trend?
According to Trapp the team is working on addressing the issue in training, so it’s likely Berhalter is emphasizing the positive in his interviews, which is a manager’s prerogative. But the difficulty for Berhalter may come in figuring out what precisely to address.
There has been no singular cause to the early goals. Some have been after turnovers, others due to bad marking and some even plain bad luck. With no one root for this particular problem, it will likely come down to match-to-match preparation, perhaps even the pre-match team talks.
Words like consternation, preparation, and mentality are easy to throw around, particularly for fans. It’s one thing to speculate on the how, but the fact is undeniable, this issue needs addressing.
With the next five games all coming against Eastern Conference opposition (two each against the New England Revolution and Toronto FC, with one against the Montreal Impact) the time to get the issue under control is now.
“Every game is vital,” Berhalter said. “These next two games against Eastern Conference opposition, close to us in the table, they’re very important. This month of May is a tough month.”
With the schedule only getting tougher from here, Berhalter, his staff, and the players will have to stop the leaking of early goals, or they risk falling from “competing for the East” to “fighting for a playoff spot.”