In 2015, Columbus Crew SC finished tied for the second-best record in Major League Soccer and hosted the MLS Cup Final. But two years later that seems like a distant memory.
That season, the Black & Gold were propelled by an offense that finished tied for second in the league with 58 goals for, or 1.71 per game. In the same number of matches a year ago, Crew SC, albeit without Kei Kamara or Federico Higuain for significant portions of the season, scored eight fewer goals and regressed by 17 points.
While 2017 started brightly, a 3-1-1 record to begin the year and Justin Meram and Ola Kamara scoring nearly at will, the team is 4-8-0 in the last 12 contests and has a -8 goal differential over that stretch.
“We have work to do,” head coach Gregg Berhalter said following the most recent defeat, a 3-1 loss to Atlanta United. “I would like to see us to get back to our game and who we are as a team. We are an attacking team, we are an aggressive team, we create a lot of chances, we are smart players, we are good on the ball and I just didn’t see that enough tonight.”
Crew SC has defensive issues, certainly, but the offense is simply not what it once was, at least not consistently.
Over the recent slide of four losses in five matches, Columbus has managed to scored more than one goal only once, the 3-0 home victory over a depleted Seattle Sounders side. After the team’s attacking front four got going early in the season, the goals per game has dropped to 1.47 and the once feared offense is now statistically just middle of the road.
“The goals have been coming from three guys,” Berhalter said. And he’s right.
Meram, Kamara and Higuain have combined for 23 of the team’s 25 finishes and while Higuain has remained hot with three goals in his last three games, Meram has one goal in five matches while Kamara has just two in his last seven.
But the problem doesn’t lie with these three; the trio continues to create offense. It’s that the load of scoring has fallen squarely on their shoulders and the Black & Gold needs contributions elsewhere.
“We think we have other guys (who can score), it’s just about getting them confident,” Berhalter said. “We believe in the players, we think they are good players, but it is getting them confident.”
Ethan Finlay became a key cog in the Columbus attack early in 2014. Over the next two years, he scored 23 goals in 63 appearances. His scoring form fell off in 2016 with just six goals in 34 games, although he did contribute nine assists which was second on the team, and he has just one goal this season, coming in the opening match.
Finlay recorded his first shot on goal since Week 1 and put another effort narrowly wide in the lost to Atlanta. Two seasons ago, fans would have put money on at least one of those chances finding the back of the net.
What used to be a feared attacking four wheeler has become a less potent tricycle.
Behind the front group is Artur, who has been a great central midfield addition for Columbus. But at 21 years old, the Brazilian is still finding his attacking game. Wil Trapp is not asked to get involved in the offense too often, evidenced by his one goal and 11 assists in 110 career games.
Where Crew SC lack the most is in reserve. When Berhalter turns to his bench for offense, his options have lacked the spark needed to help change a game late.
Adam Jahn, a midseason acquisition a year ago whose career high in goals for a season was one, is the lone true forward option. The 6-foot-3 striker flourished as a backup to Kamara in 2016, setting a new mark with five finishes on 20 shots in 12 appearances.
It made sense for the club to retain and trust Jahn, hoping to build on that form and be the compliment to Kamara off the bench. But through 12 games already this year, Jahn has failed to find the net on only six shots.
Niko Hansen has shown flashes of being able to push Finlay on the right wing, and even took his starting spot briefly, scoring a game-winning goal against the Portland Timbers and adding two assists on the year. But the rookie is not ready to be counted on for major minutes and has seen his form dip, even when coming off the bench.
Kektua Manneh was a hyped addition following the late March trade with the Vancouver Whitecaps. But after struggling to see the field over his first four matches in Columbus, Manneh has failed to deliver on the potential Crew SC hoped to get through five games and three starts. Now the speedy winger is out with a foot injury.
Other than that, the team is not getting contributions. Mohammed Abu has been inconsistent when on the field, Dilly Duka and Cristian Martinez can’t even find the pitch and that’s it for offensive players for Crew SC.
Berhalter’s team is built on offense. While the defense could certainly use an improvement, conceding almost two goals per game is unacceptable, it is the offense that has carried this team in the past and must do so again.
The stars, for the most part, are pulling their weight but the depth is not there to supplement that.
Although Kei Kamara shouldered much of the load in 2015 with 22 goals, four other players chipped in with at least five finishes and they were often timely and important.
“We need to think about supplementing that group,” Berhalter admitted of the front three. “Then we’ll look to do that but they are good players.”
The summer transfer window opens on July 10 and the Black & Gold could be in the market for an attacking player. Whether it’s a bigger scoring threat on the wing to compete with Finlay for playing time, or another striker to help lesson the pressure on Kamara, this team must get back to the free-flowing, goal-scoring soccer that led the group to MLS Cup.
And it needs to happen soon.