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A ‘wake up call’ may be exactly what Columbus Crew SC needed

Mental mistakes from the first four games finally cost Crew SC against Vancouver.

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

Defeated. That’s what Columbus Crew SC now are.

On Saturday, the Black & Gold lost for the first time in 2018. The 2-1 loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps at MAPFRE Stadium was also the first regular season setback since Aug. 5 of last year, a 2-1 loss to the San Jose Earthquakes on the road.

This defeat comes after a 3-0-1 start to the season that had nearly everyone associated with the team feeling pretty good.

“I think this is a good wake up call for us,” head coach Gregg Berhalter said following the game. “For us, I don’t think that we can play at 60 percent of our highest level and win games in this league. I really don’t.”

For the majority of the first half, Crew SC controlled the game. The Black & Gold had nearly 60 percent of the possession at the break, and a 1-0 lead. Although it wasn’t the finest performance of the season from Columbus, the team was playing its game, moving the ball around the bigger Whitecaps group and opening space.

In the second half, the positive, attacking Crew SC soccer disappeared, replaced by... something else.

“I think in the second half we rested on our laurels a little bit and tried to get a little too cute with things,” captain Wil Trapp said. “We’ve got to just keep doing what we’re doing. Keep building. Keep pulling guys out of spaces. We didn’t do that in the second half.”

While it was a stunned contingent of black-and-gold clad fans leaving MAPFRE Stadium, perhaps this loss was foreshadowed.

Columbus had a convincing win to open the season at Toronto FC, but that was a team focused on bigger fish in the CONCAF Champions League. In the 3-2 victory over the Montreal Impact a week later, the Black & Gold lost control in the second half, allowing the visitors to level the match. Crew SC looked out of sorts in a 0-0 draw at the Philadelphia Union, but then came back home to dominate a depleted D.C. United team.

On paper, 3-0-1 looked great, but given Columbus had played only three halves of good soccer, this was a team ripe for the picking.

Grabbing a lead 29 minutes into Saturday’s contest possibly gave the Black & Gold the confidence that led to the team’s downfall.

“This is a game where we see we can’t just stroll on the field and be up a goal and think it’s over at halftime,” Trapp stated. “I think we could have been much better in the second half, but it’s a long season and this is a game where it’s an opponent we think we should beat and we didn’t get it done, so we have to continue to improve.”

Not for the first time this season, a first half lead was followed by a disappointing second half. In Toronto, Crew SC withstood the onslaught of pressure the defending MLS Cup champions applied in the second half — with the home side twice hitting the post — to get a win. A stoppage time penalty kick against the Impact saved the Black & Gold from embarrassment in Week 2.

In all but the D.C. game, a team perpetually near the bottom of the MLS standings in recent years, when Columbus has taken a first half lead, the team does not continue to play its game getting out of sorts and allowing the opponent back in the match. Instead of staying aggressive and keeping the ball, the Black & Gold were “cautious,” a term Berhalter used multiple times following the loss.

Through the first four weeks of the season, these letdowns didn’t cost Crew SC. In Week 5, it did.

“In attacking positions, we need to be threatening the opponent’s backline,” Berhalter said. “That’s what our game is about, putting players in position to get behind the opponent and today we did a very poor job of that. I don’t know if it was willingness to run, I don’t know if it was positioning. We’re going to look at it, but today was not good.”

While Saturday’s performance against Vancouver was not pleasing, and it was clear after the game that no one in the Columbus locker room was happy, it’s also not the end of the world for the team.

The Black & Gold still sit near the top of the MLS standings and has put itself in a good position over the first month of the season.

Crew SC preach staying level throughout the course of the campaign, not getting too high after wins or low after losses. Perhaps the team was a bit too high on itself with the hot start and this wake up call will serve as a refocusing point moving forward on what is a very long season.

“It brings you back down to Earth,” Trapp said. “It’s a game where we started well and we have to continue to improve because teams don’t roll over. The competition has to be better, the soccer has to be better and how we solve problems within games together.”