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Despite a good start, Columbus Crew SC remains a work in progress

Gregg Berhalter likes his defensive group so far, but sees room for attacking improvements.

MLS: Montreal Impact at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Columbus Crew SC fans might be excited by the team’s start to the 2018 Major League Soccer season, after all the Black & Gold have earned seven points in the team’s first three matches, with two of them been played on the road, to rank second in the Eastern Conference standings.

The good start becomes even more meaningful if we remember that the team lost two of its main pieces from the 2017 season, Justin Meram and Ola Kamara, who were both traded during the offseason.

It’s still early in the year, but Crew SC is already sending a message to those who doubted the team would remain competitive in 2018, especially in a crowded Eastern Conference.

“I felt like the expectations have changed a little with the group,” head coach Gregg Berhalter commented. “They expect more and I think that’s a good thing. But I also think it’s not about expectations; it’s about going out and doing it and putting the work in to get the results that you need. We’re doing a decent job on that.”

The area of the team which has been more impressive so far is certainly defense. The backline composed by Harrison Afful, Jonathan Mensah, Lalas Abubakar and Milton Valenzuela has been on the field for all the 270 minutes the team has played and has been solid so far, leading Crew SC to two shootouts on the road.

After an impressive 2-0 road win over defending champions Toronto FC in the season opener, the Black & Gold displayed it defensive efficiency once again last Saturday, in the scoreless tie against the Philadelphia Union.

“Our defensive shape was really good,” Berhalter said in regards to the Philadelphia match. “During the game I thought we were too stretched at times. That allowed them to win the second ball, especially when they played long.

“Looking at it again, we gave up very few goal opportunities. Playing away from home, similar in terms of Toronto in how we mixed up a low block, a middle block and a high block pressing, forcing their goalie to kick the ball long a number of times. So I thought that was excellent.”

If in the back everything looks fine, up front there’s room for improvement. Crew SC has scored five goals so far, with all of them coming from either Gyasi Zardes or Federico Higuain. The forward averages 3.7 shots per game, good for 12th-best in the league according to WhoScored.com, but after Zardes are Afful and winger Pedro Santos, who tie for 38th with two shots per match.

The lack of more players willing to get inside the penalty box and finish play is something Berhalter noticed against the Union and a topic for development over the next few weeks.

“What I missed I think was the getting the numbers forward into the penalty box,” he said. “I think we didn’t do a good job of occupying the opposing penalty box and that’s something we’re looking at, we want to address.”

“I think the willingness to get inside the penalty box, we lacked a little bit. We did have some opportunities, but it wasn’t like we had numbers there. We’ll keep working with our group and try to be more precise to create more chances and finish them.”