Heading into Columbus Crew SC’s game against Atlanta United on June 13, the Black & Gold had scored 22 goals during the 2018 Major League Soccer season. Nine of those came from first-year forward Gyasi Zardes and four from Federico Higuain.
It didn’t take complicated metrics for Atlanta to figure out how to come into MAPFRE Stadium a shutout Columbus. The answer was simple: bottle up Zardes and Higuain and see if anyone else in the Crew SC lineup could beat them. The United defenders even told Zardes that was the game plan after the visitors won 2-0. Simple, but effective.
Since that point, other teams have adopted the same philosophy.
“The Galaxy did an amazing job with Dave Romney and Mike Ciani,” Zardes said of the LA Galaxy defenders. “If you watch the first half, both of them are on top of me. It makes it hard for me to get the ball at feel, but it also makes it hard to play a ball over the top because you’ve got two against one. With New York (City), there was plenty of space but their defenders still tried to keep me ahead of them, as opposed to behind them because it’s a narrow field.”
Since that loss to Atlanta, Zardes has just one goal in four appearances and that finish came from the penalty spot. Higuain, who missed a game with injury and came of the bench in another, has no goals or assists in his last four matches.
This has become a major issue for the Black & Gold. Without Zardes or Higuain generating the offense, the team has found it difficult to find the back of the net. While Columbus routinely goes through disappointing stretches in the summer before finding the team’s form later in the year, offense has never been a problem. This year it is.
In the five games dating back to the mid-June contest with United, Crew SC has been shutout four times. The only other player to score over that stretch not name Zardes is Higuain’s backup, Eduardo Sosa, who had the game-winning goal against Real Salt Lake. Other than that, it’s been creating chances but no finishes.
“In those games, we got a couple goals called back,” head coach Gregg Berhalter said. “We had a number of opportunities in those games that we didn’t finish. It’s disappointing.”
This scoring slump was not entirely unforeseen coming into the season. The Black & Gold had the team’s top two scorers, Ola Kamara and Justin Meram, request trades in the offseason. Both of those were granted. Zardes was acquired in the trade for Kamara and his production has been good until recently, but the forward does not have the same help as Ola did last year.
“It’s not just the attacking group, it’s not just the guy getting chances, it’s everyone,” Berhalter said. “And we want to work on how do we get better chances and how do we finish them off. And that’s continual.”
Winger Pedro Santos was expected to be part of the solution after Meram’s departure and it looked like he would be able to provide some of what his former teammate brought offensively. After registering his first MLS goal and three assists over the first two months of the season, Santos has only one helper. Only one other winger — Mike Grella — has a goal this year. Cristian Martinez has two assists, while Niko Hansen has just one. The only other goal scorers in 2018 are center backs Lalas Abubakar and Alex Crognale, right back Harrison Afful and midfielder Ricardo Clark.
That’s just not good enough for a team with dreams of postseason success.
Despite being shutouts in back-to-back matches, though, captain Wil Trapp sees progress in the offense.
“I think the positive thing, you look at the game against the Galaxy, we did well back half to midfield to get to the final third and we were a little bit lost. Not getting enough numbers in the penalty box, not getting the ball side to side,” he said. “I think in the New York (City) game, we showed a significant amount of improvement in getting the ball forward, like we have been, but then, when we are in those attacking positions, getting numbers in the penalty box, creating shots and chances. But now we have to get it in the goal. There’s progression and there’s positive things to be taken from that.”
Build up is good, but that doesn’t result in goals, and no goals mean no wins for the Black & Gold.
Last week, Crew SC made a move, trading for forward Patrick Mullins. While the forward position hasn’t been much of a problem for Columbus, Mullins will provide a scoring punch off the bench and help push Zardes and Adam Jahn, at least for now. Berhalter has also stated that the team is in the market for a winger, likely one who could provide goals and assists.
But for now, Crew SC has to work with what the team has. The good news is the Black & Gold returns home on Saturday, a place where the team has scored all but three of its goals this season. Columbus liked the improvement made last week offensively, despite not scoring a goal and hopes to see that manifest itself into finishes against Orlando City SC this weekend.
“We just have to keep working,” Trapp said. “I think we had a great week of training last week and that translated to a better performance on the field. It still has to be more.”