It was the same old song and dance on Wednesday night.
Columbus Crew SC faced a team that, on paper, it should beat. Once again, the Black & Gold did not.
Knowing Crew SC would control the game no matter what, FC Cincinnati did what any overmatched side would do, and what has worked against Columbus in the past, and put numbers behind the ball in an effort to defend and frustrate the visitors and looked to counter attack.
In other words, FCC bunkered.
“It’s about all they did,” Crew SC captain Wil Trapp said.
This shouldn’t have stunned the Black & Gold. And it didn’t.
“We know teams are going to bunker in, that’s not a surprise,” defender Josh Williams admitted.
Columbus put out a strong lineup in order to combat Cincinnati’s tactics. Aside from forward Ola Kamara and goalkeeper Zack Steffen, head coach Gregg Berhalter played a group made up more or less of starters — three players were unavailable after recently returning from international duty — to control the game and attack the USL side.
The intention for Crew SC was clear. The team setup to win the game.
So what went wrong? It began with a more lethargic first half from the players than Berhalter desired.
“I think that when we started the game, I think we lacked urgency and I think that lack of urgency resulted in way too slow ball movement,” he said postgame. “We got into good positions, but it wasn’t quick enough. And I think speed was going to be the key to hurting them and moving the ball quickly.
You saw in the second half when we were able to do that, we could get around the edges, we created some real dangerous chances.”
The longer the game went scoreless, the more confident the home side became and the bigger the struggle was for Crew SC in front of more than 30,000 fans.
The Black & Gold finished with nearly 60 percent of the possession and had 19 total shots, five on goal. FC Cincinnati had just five shots for the contest, three on target. But the home side put one in the net in the 64th minute and that’s how you win games.
“It’s a difficult thing to swallow,” goalkeeper Brad Stuver, who made his first start of the year, said. “They had two chances the entire game, one in the last 30 seconds of the first half and that one. Other than that, I didn’t really see much action.
So it’s really difficult when we can’t break down their back five and they weather our storm and they get two chances and they bury one of them. It’s a tough thing to swallow.”
FCC came out with five defenders, three center backs and two wing backs, and kept a defensive midfielder just in front of the back five. The team stayed compact at the back in the hopes of not allowing the Black & Gold to create dangerous opportunities.
What do you do in those situations?
“Ball circulation and then finding the right time,” Trapp said. “So it’s being patient, but also seizing the opportunity to play behind them.
“Ball circulation, playing the right foot, playing the right speed of passes and getting the balls to guys where they can play quickly. I think we did a good enough job. I think at spurts it was fine, but it could have been better.”
There were chances. Adam Jahn, Federico Higuain and Artur all had good looks from inside the penalty box. As the story goes, Columbus did not take advantage of these chances or didn’t create enough of them to score.
Too often, especially late in the game, the ball went wide and the team struggle to put in a dangerous effort that really put Cincinnati in danger.
FCC had a couple good scoring opportunities and managed to finish one. And that was all that was needed.
“The deciding moments of the game are usually in both penalty boxes and I think we came up short in both penalty boxes today,” Berhalter admitted. “On the goal, it was way too easy to score that, and then in their penalty box. I didn’t think it was enough.”
It’s a tale as old as Berhalter’s tenure with Crew SC. Chances created and not seized while the bunkering opponent capitalizes on one or two openings.
“We’ve got to figure out a way to attack that and we’ve got to unlock that puzzle,” Williams said. “If teams are going to keep doing it and we’re going to keep playing like this, we’re going to end up with the same results. We’ve got to trust Gregg, trust the coaches like we did tonight.”
So how does this get fixed?
“You work on it. You train it. Plain and simple,” Trapp said. “When you think you’ve trained enough, you’ve got to keep going. That’s something we just have to continue to work on.”
Columbus is now out of the Open Cup earlier than expected. Attention shifts back to MLS play where, despite a recent slide of three losses in the last four games, the team still sits two points above the playoff line with just over half the season remaining.
It’s a quick turnaround for the Black & Gold who travel to Atlanta, a difficult place to play, on Saturday in an Eastern Conference clash. But the team must switch gears and get ready to play an important match.
“We’ve got a big one on Saturday in Atlanta and that won’t be an easy place to play either,” Williams said. “We better be ready because that’s a good team there too so we’ve got to bounce back.
“If we’re not ready Saturday, it could get ugly. So we’ve got to go and we’ve got to be ready to compete at a high level.”