Columbus Crew SC rebounded from a pair of poor performances to secure a vital three points on Saturday at MAPFRE Stadium. Facing a Kei Kamara-less New England Revolution, the Black & Gold put together what may well be the team’s best 90 minutes of soccer this season. Here are six thoughts.
Just what the doctor ordered
This match was exactly what Crew SC needed, both in result and performance. After dropping the first of a three-match homestand, Columbus needed to rally in this one, and did. It wasn’t a perfect performance, and the 2-0 scoreline was definitely flattering, but at the end of the day, Crew SC got the goals needed and didn’t concede.
With a short turnaround to the next game, and a much better opponent coming to town, a loss here would really have ramped up the pressure on the Black & Gold. But with this win, the team instead received a much-needed boost of confidence heading in to the Trillium Cup clash.
Ready to start
Earlier in the week I wrote of the peril Crew SC were putting themselves in by conceding first thus far this season, and Saturday’s match saw the other side of that coin. By getting the opening goal, Columbus relieved any pressure, and were much better for it. In a match with such a dramatic line-up shuffle, there was a real danger that the Black & Gold could once again concede while getting settled in to the new look, but that didn’t happen. Despite a scary moment or two, Crew SC settled into the game early and took control with a 13th minute goal.
Rolling the dice
One of the recurring storylines of the first third of the Crew SC season has been head coach Gregg Berhalter’s readiness to change his lineups and tactics game by game. Saturday, he rolled the dice with a radically different lineup, moving Nicolai Naess in to the defensive midfield spot, putting Josh Williams in the center of defense, and changing both fullbacks.
The lineup was initially worrying. While Waylon Francis is a proven MLS caliber left back, Hector Jimenez at right back still leaves me concerned. He ended up having a solid game, clocking in with a 7.36 WhoScored rating.
The man who benefited the most by these tweaks was Wil Trapp. With Naess playing Trapp’s usual defensive midfielder role, dropping between the center backs to pick up and distribute the ball, the 24 year old played further up field with a more offensive focus than usually. Fans, critics, and commentators have hypothesized on Trapp’s ability to play this role for a while now, and judging by Saturday’s performance he is capable of it in spades.
Trapp’s passing stats are always high, but on this occasion his passes were more forward focused, rather than lateral or backwards. He pulled the strings from the midfield as a deep-lying playmaker behind Higuain, offering the team another creative option.
Artur has filled this role this season, and looked good doing it, but is only on a one-year loan with no guarantee he will return. With that in mind, Trapp’s performance in a more offensive role was good to see.
Speed (still) kills
I wrote about this earlier in the season, but this Crew SC team look their most dangerous when moving the ball quickly. Berhalter’s style is predicated on keeping possession, and at times that slow build up is required, but watching this match it was apparent how much deadlier the Black & Gold are when moving the ball quickly.
With players like Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay out wide, and the off the ball movement of Ola Kamara, the quick, incisive passing can be as dangerous as any attack in the league as the team pulls the opposition out of its team shape.
I was also pleased to see Crew SC employ more direct, over the top passing at times against New England. This was probably part of the game plan to exploit the Revolution’s suspect defense, but it’s a wrinkle I’d like to see used more often. It won’t work against every opponent, but I was glad to see it used in this one, especially to such good effect.
The Pipa party continues
In the first couple of Six-Thought Boxes, I speculated that Federico Higuain may be past his expiration date based on his subpar performances to start the year. It turns out I was horribly, unquestionably wrong, and I’m thrilled to be able to admit that.
Over the last two games, Pipa produced two sterling displays, and any questions as to whether or not he belongs on the field have been brushed so far aside they’re no longer even relevant. Gone are the unforced turnovers of the early season, in their place Pipa has summoned some truly sublime passing.
According to WhoScored.com, Higuain completed 92.3 percent of his passes, including three key passes. He also scored a top-quality shot from outside of the penalty box after a great one-two with Ola Kamara.
If Pipa continues this renaissance, Crew SC could be poised to be a real offensive force.
Settling the debate
Niko Hansen has garnered quite a bit of attention this season, and rightfully so. He has played well in his appearances, even earning starts over Ethan Finlay. This prompted some to speculate that Finlay may be destined for a super-sub role, or even on the trading block. I believe that Saturday’s match proved quite decisively that the best front four Crew SC can currently put out remains Meram, Higuain, Finlay and Kamara.
This isn’t a knock on Hansen, or Kekuta Manneh, but rather that the team looked like a different beast with the front four all firing. While Hansen and Manneh both have qualities that can give the team a boost, and they will almost certainly be called on to do so over the course of the year, the tried-and-true lineup of veterans still gives this team the best chance of winning. Higuain’s improved play means more looks for Finlay and Meram, which means less attention on Kamara. While the two newcomers can both fill the Finlay (or Meram) role, their unfamiliarity with not only the system, but with Pipa, means the Crew SC offense won’t be running at peak efficiency unless this lineup is out there.