A sellout crowd turned out at MAPFRE Stadium for Columbus Crew SC’s annual fireworks spectacular, but the match beforehand ended up a damp squib. Here are six thoughts.
Just Not Cutting It
A 2-0 loss to Atlanta United is not the end of the world in and of itself, even at home, given the Five Stripes assemblage of attacking talent and one of MLS’s best coaches. As disappointing as losing at home is, it’s what I expected.
What I didn’t expect was the sheer lack of real quality from Crew SC. They had no edge, no creativity, and for most of the match no real fight as evidenced by the team’s one shot on goal and continued fragile defense.
Are we able to tell if this team is a contender yet? I think Saturday finally convinced me that is not the case. There are simply too many holes, too many mistakes, and too much indecision for me to consider this team anything but an also-ran who will have to scrap and fight its way into the playoffs.
We (Still) Need to Talk About Jonathan
Columbus’ Designated Player center back signing has struggled this year. It’s obvious to anyone who has watched him play this season that he is not the signing Gregg Berhalter and staff hoped he would be.
Saturday evening he continued his struggle, gifting Atlanta the opening goal. This was the type of play that Jonathan was brought in to make, a physical duel where he can use his natural gifts (height, strength) to muscle off a smaller, more skilled player. He has yet to make these consistently, and failed to record tackle or interception in this match.
Post-match, Berhalter spoke of “helping Jonathan adapt” to the league, and claimed that his performances were no different than anyone else on the backline. Crew SC fans must hope this is just coach-speak, not wanting to throw your player under the bus publicly. Berhalter does not seem like the kind of coach to get caught up in a player’s salary determining his playing time, but continuing to play a struggling defender would begin to raise some questions.
Not the Only Afful Night
Jonathan wasn’t the only Ghanaian who struggled Saturday night. Harrison Afful has had a fairly troubled season as well, and Saturday was no exception.
Afful is a right back who provides more value going forward than in defense, but this season his offensive impact has been negligible. His roaming forward often puts his fellow defenders under extra strain, and this season the end product from those excursions have been lacking. His crossing has been very poor, and he often seems to be on a different wave-length than his winger, Ethan Finlay.
I’m beginning to think that Afful may be one of the players who is having trouble adapting to the ever-changing tactical instructions from Berhalter, as he’s been asked to do a number of different things this year. If the staff can’t figure out how to best use Afful, it may be time for Hector Jimenez to get a more extended chance.
Statistics are always a point of contention, but I submit one stat for consideration, a stat that I believe sums up Crew SC’s struggles: one shot on target.
Columbus had more possession than Atlanta, completed more passes, and had more total shots, but only managed a single shot on goal, a Justin Meram blast early in the first half. For the rest of the match, the shots were all less than stellar, most not even coming close to the target.
For a team struggling defensively, this poor form in front of goal is essentially a death sentence. All of the possession and chance creation doesn’t mean anything if the Black & Gold aren’t able to get any shots on target and actually test the keeper.
Crew SC are not getting enough in attack from their wing backs and, especially, their center midfielders. With the main attacking foursome of Federico Higuain, Ola Kamara, Finlay and Meram currently all struggling to find the target, Columbus needs to find a way to get its midfield duo of Wil Trapp and Artur more involved with the attack.
Artur actually had two shots this match, and Crew SC really could use him stepping up the offensive side of his game. The man he replaced, Tony Tchani, only scored eight goals in six-plus years with the Black & Gold, but was usually an option in the attack. Artur has largely been confined to recycling the ball around the field.
If he can begin testing keepers with shots from range, if only once a match or so, it could open up some looks for the likes of Meram, Pipa, and Kamara.
The same goes for the wing backs. If they can add in a shot from distance rather than simply crossing the ball, it would give defenses something else to consider.
Must Win Territory
The month of July will likely prove to be the critical month of Crew SC’s season. The Black & Gold travel to face a Minnesota United side on Tuesday who are second from the bottom in the West. There is the Gold Cup break followed by a home-and-home series with the Philadelphia Union and a trip to play Real Salt Lake, both struggling teams.
Despite the challenges of traveling in MLS, recent results have made these fixtures all, essentially, must-wins. With the Chicago Fire, Toronto FC, and New York City FC all playing well and leading the pack, Crew SC are essentially fighting for one of three remaining playoff spots in the East. If the Black & Gold have any hope of securing one of those spots, the team absolutely has to beat MLS’s bottom-feeders.