Bumpy, not fluid
Head Coach Gregg Berhalter heavily rotated the team for the game. There were six changes from Saturday’s loss against Atlanta United to the team that came out against Minnesota three days later. Only Ola Kamara, Ethan Finlay, Wil Trapp, Jukka Raitala, and Zack Steffen started back-to-back to back games as Berhalter deployed a 3-4-3 formation.
The goal was clear, but the execution was bumpy. With little continuity in live games, missing two key playmakers, in the heat, and on a springy turf, Crew SC struggled to link passes and looked a little lethargic throughout the half.
Pitching a Shutout
United’s offense is struggling under the weight of call-ups and injuries, but the Black & Gold defense put in an excellent shift to keep good chances at a minimum.
Nicolai Naess jumped back into the lineup and performed solidly until he had to be lifted due to injury. Josh Williams stepped in and worked well with rookies Alex Crognale and Lalas Abubakar to keep the home side stymied. It was wasn’t the sternest task in MLS, but the group came out with flying colors.
Without Federico Higuain or Justin Meram in the starting lineup, Crew SC missed some chance creators. Berhalter apparently wanted to use pace to get big chances on the counter attack. With Kekuta Manneh and Ethan Finlay in at the wing forwards, Columbus was able to use the speed to create a couple of opportunities in the first half, but none were especially dangerous. The tactic did get the only goal, as Manneh found plenty of space between the lines of a stretched United defense when he uncorked his game winner from distance.
Meram’s Instant Impact
Crew SC had 14 shots in the win against Minnesota. Nine of them came after Meram entered the game in the 63rd minute. Some of that is that Minnesota overextended to tie the game, but the quality and quantity of chances that Meram set up was stark. Columbus would miss Higuain if he lost a significant amount of time, but it’s clear that Meram is ready to shoulder the heavy responsibility of running the offense when he’s needed. That’s a very handy option to have.
A wounded opponent
It’s hard to get a full measure of how the team played when the opponent was missing a large portion of the roster due to injury and call-ups.
Minnesota only dressed 17 players and struggled to get anything working in the attacking end, often playing five at the back when defending in their 3-5-2. It kept Crew SC’s chances limited, but United was especially toothless going forward. It’s normally a situation where Columbus struggles and some of that showed, but they were still able to grab an opportunistic goal.
Crew SC now sits in sixth place in the Eastern Conference going into the Gold Cup break, the final playoff position. It's certainly better than 2016's performance, but it feels like a disappointment given some of the character of Crew SC's losses, notably Toronto (x2) and Atlanta (x2).
The Black & Gold are however also eighth in the Supporter Shield standings. So the big picture is... complicated. Fans likely feel a sense of whiplash as the team bounces from from bad to good result.
There are 14 games remaining that will serve as final decision on whether 2017 was a success or failure. Buckle in for what will prove to be a rollercoaster ride.