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Six-Thought Box: Columbus Crew SC Collapse in Colorado

Six thoughts on a bad night in the Rockies.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Colorado Rapids Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday’s late collapse in Colorado laid bare most of the problems Columbus Crew SC has experienced in the Gregg Berhalter era. Here are my six thoughts.

This Should Have Been a Win

Make no mistake, this should have been a win. Yes, it was a short week, traveling, at altitude and all those factors could contribute to a loss. But that wasn’t the case this week.

This game wasn’t lost due to playing at altitude, or fixture congestion. This game was lost due to mismanagement and poor play. For large stretches of the match the Colorado Rapids were ripe for the picking, their press leaving them stretched thin and giving Crew SC lots of room to exploit. Which they didn’t. The chances they did create went begging, a now-familiar theme for the Black & Gold.

Columbus was the better team for much of this game, but failed to take advantage of it.

Finish the Job

This isn’t the first time this year we’ve seen a fairly in-control Crew SC side collapse late. Once again the Black & Gold lacked that killer instinct needed to step on the throat and finish the job.

Besides Justin Meram’s header that was cleared off the line, Columbus didn’t create much after taking the lead. The team let the Rapids hang around, and eventually paid for it.

Teams that compete for silverware don’t let leads slip late, but rather score the second goal and kill off the game. This is not a systemic issue, like most of Crew SC’s problems, it’s a mentality one, and it may be the most telling issue this team faces.

Not What We Were Expecting

Most of us were expecting Colorado to set up in a highly defensive formation, “parking the bus” so to speak, and trying to frustrate the Black & Gold. It’s fair to think Gregg Berhalter was expecting the same given his lineup designed to deal with that. He deployed three center backs and wing backs in lieu of wingers, and Meram and Federico Higuain playing in behind Ola Kamara.

This formation was designed to get more players involved in attack high up the field, and also offered the option of Wil Trapp playing balls over the top from center midfield. But the Rapids didn’t do as expected.

Instead Colorado pressed high, which is a known weakness for Columbus. Crew SC struggled to settle in, pinned back by the pressure. The center backs were harassed and forced to clear the ball rather than pass out of the back. Berhalter’s side didn’t react particularly quickly to this unexpected challenge, showing that another common perception of Berhalter and his sides is true.

This press, as I alluded to above, left lots of space for them to exploit, but they failed to do so. Crew SC did eventually ride out the storm and settle in, but had they reacted to what was presented to them, this could have been a different outcome.

Let’s Talk About Subs

This game was screaming for a shake up, probably as early as half time, but it didn’t come. Crew SC took the lead off a deflected Higuain shot, which likely put any planned changes on hold.

Once taking the lead, Berhalter decided to hold the line, bringing on Artur for Mohammed Abu, and then Jonathan Mensah for Nicolai Naess after Kevin Doyle had equalized for the Rapids. As we’ve said before, Jonathan has been fairly underwhelming this year, and many Crew fans scratched their heads at this sub.

The formation changing didn’t come until the 89th minute, after Alan Gordon had bashed the Rapids ahead. Had Berhalter gone to his bench earlier, this game could have been wildly different. The subs he made were not the right ones, and came far too late to matter.

An Afful Night

In this column we’ve had some criticism of Mohammed Abu and Jonathan Mensah in recent weeks. At the risk of seeming anti-Ghanaian, this week I have to talk a little about Harrison Afful.

He’s a fan favorite, a dynamic player who is capable of helping the offense by getting forward, but lately his play has been poor. That offensive push he gives is negated by his tendency to put his fellow defenders under pressure by getting caught too far up field. He gives the ball away all too often, and I’m starting to think that he may be doing more harm than good.

With a team stacked with quality wingers, is the defensive burden he puts on the side worth the offensive push? With Hector Jimenez seeming to be finding his feet at right back, I think Afful’s place should no longer be considered automatic. He’s a good player, there is no doubt, but I’m not entirely sure he’s the best option for the Crew right now.

Now is the Time

Crew SC have a lot to figure out. While the optimists will point out they have the second most wins in the league and are still firmly in the playoff hunt, the glass half empty set will counter with they also have the second most losses.

Last week, I wrote that fans are growing restless, and a loss against one of the worst teams in the league won’t do much to help that. With an international break upon us, it gives Berhalter and his staff a chance to evaluate the first part of the season and (hopefully) find fixes for these recurring issues. How this team recoups after this tough and disappointing run will go a long way to defining this season, and possibly defining Gregg Berhalter’s future.