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It was another weird Wednesday for Crew SC in Philly.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Philadelphia Union Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Columbus Crew SC hit the road to play the Philadelphia Union for the second time in four days, and as has become tradition, the match was a weird one. Here are six thoughts.

Calls Change Games, but Rarely Decide Them

So let’s start with the elephant in the room. Ismail Elfath, the center official for the match, generated his fair share of controversy. His calls (and non-calls) have generated quite a bit of heat from Crew SC fans, as well as from the usually even-keeled Gregg Berhalter.

The biggest flashpoint was the sending off of Jonathan Mensah in the 35th minute for a foul in the penalty box. The resulting penalty attempt was saved, but there has been much debate on the merits of the decision. It appeared from at least one angle that the foul started outside of the box and continued in to the penalty area, and the argument has also been made that Alex Crognale was close enough to the play that it should not have been considered a “denial of an obvious goalscoring opportunity.”

The nuances of the laws of the game are not my forte and I didn’t have trouble with the call.

My issues with Mr. Elfath came with his handling of the match after that flashpoint. Yellow cards began to fly as the game got chippy, but after no call was made when Artur appeared to get mugged by Oguchi Onyewu, Crew SC fans became incensed. This was made all the worse when Lalas Abubakar was sent off late on for a similar challenge. Both the non-call and later call were questionable.

But none of this cost the Black & Gold the match. Crew SC had several chances to equalize when down only one goal, but the players were not sharp enough to score. The goals conceded were due to poor defending, decision making, and individual mistakes. The referee definitely changed the game, but he didn’t decide it.

Goals Change Games, Too

Crew SC actually started this match fairly well. The team seemed to control the pace early and despite the Union using the high press, were coping decently.

Despite some quality possession play and promising moments of buildup, however, the Black & Gold lacked sharpness and creativity in the final third. After conceding the opening goal following a comedy of errors by the backline, the team’s momentum stagnated, but soon found itself again.

Even after the sending off, Columbus still had chances to equalize. The players just… couldn’t. The sharpness wasn’t there. The creativity wasn’t there. When the second goal came, it really killed off all hope for the game. Up until then, an argument could be made that Crew SC possibly deserved something out of the match. It all boiled down to the Union taking its chances, and the Black & Gold failing to take theirs.

After all the furor and debate about referee decisions dies down, that will truly be the story of this match.

Conduits

When it came to the attack, it was obvious Crew SC were missing playmaker Federico Higuain. The Argentine midfielder was again out with an injury, and the team looked listless in his absence.

I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking much of the creative burden would fall on the shoulders of Justin Meram, utilized slightly more centrally in the 3-4-2-1 formation, but he was uncharacteristically uninvolved for much of his time on the field.

Playing on the right instead of the left, he ceded much of the play to Kekuta Manneh, who, despite showing flashes of ability to spark an attack, seemed to lack either the quality or composure to turn those sparks in to goals.

The congested schedule may have been a factor in Meram’s quiet night, but if Higuain is going to miss time, Crew SC are going to need to find that offensive spark from somewhere, and Meram is still going to be the first man up. He’ll need to up his game to fill that role, or the Black & Gold will continue to struggle.

Enough Blame to Go Around

Jonathan Mensah has been the subject of much deserved scorn over the course of the year, and, after conceding a penalty kick and getting a red card for his trouble, is getting even more of it in the aftermath of this one. He also seems to be shouldering the blame for the opening goal, but in that instance, he shouldn’t be the only one.

Jukka Raitala could have closed down the cross better and Alex Crognale failed to clear the ball well. Jonathan’s inability to clear let CJ Sappong make a bicycle kick cross to Ilshino, who scored, but there were several defensive breakdowns on that play.

The Real Deal

The lone bright spot out of this match was the play of goalkeeper Zack Steffen. That seems odd to say on a night he conceded three goals, but it’s true. The 22 year old made several quality saves, including on the penalty kick.

More than anything I’m encouraged by the growth he’s exhibited since the beginning of the season. After the opening game of the year, I was worried by his lack of command of his area, by his indecision. As the season has gone on, he’s shown great improvement in both of those areas, as well as noticeable improvement in his distribution. He still has a long way to go, in some of the departments more than others, but I’m really beginning to believe Crew SC have found the young man to continue the club’s tradition of great goalkeepers.

Just Not Enough

On our extended edition of Massive Matchday we did during the Gold Cup break, Josh Mlot, Nathaniel Marhefka and I gave our predictions of how the Eastern Conference will shake out, and I was the only one who had the Crew missing out on the playoffs. Wednesday’s match really epitomized this.

Against a fellow middle-of-the-pack team, Crew SC just couldn’t get it going, and that lack of sharpness, of poise, of quality will ultimately be what dooms this team. The Black & Gold have shown the ability to pull off some contender-like results, but that lack of quality means the team can’t do it consistently. And that inconsistency will be what keeps them from the postseason.