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As the playoffs loom, Crew SC is doing things in a different way

The goals aren’t coming as frequent for the Black & Gold. But Columbus isn’t leaking as many either in 2018.

MLS: Columbus Crew at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

It hasn’t been easy for Columbus Crew SC to score goals in 2018. With four games remaining in the regular season, the Black & Gold have found the back of the net just 39 times. If you extend that out until the end of the season, Crew SC is on pace to score just over 44 goals this year.

This is a far cry from the high-scoring Gregg Berhalter teams of the last four seasons. The fewest goals scored by Columbus since Berhalter took over was 50 in 2016, the year the team failed to make the MLS Cup playoffs. Even in Berhalter’s first year, when the team had the likes of Jairo Arrieta, Aaron Schoenfeld and Adam Bedell as forwards, Crew SC managed to find the back of the net 52 times.

But those struggles may have changed last week. Columbus played on Wednesday and Saturday and scored two goals in each match. This is only the fourth time this season Crew SC has scored multiple goals in back-to-back matches.

“I think it’s positive,” Berhalter said of these goals. “I believe in the guys ability I think a lot more than some other people and it’s because I see them every day and I know there’s quality there.”

Perhaps most importantly for a team that has relied so heavily on forward Gyasi Zardes to finish chances, three different players scored goals in that two-game stretch and Zardes only scored once.

“Gyasi, 16 goals. He’s always putting himself in good scoring positions,” midfielder Wil Trapp said. “Pedro (Santos), great scoring positions, Pipa (Federico Higuain) getting another goal, which was great, and Niko (Hansen) with two on Wednesday.”

The lack of scoring isn’t due to a lack of effort. According to the expected goals metric, the number of goals that can be expected to be scored based on where and how a shot was taken, the Black & Gold are right in the middle of Major League Soccer with 44.9 xG instead of third from the bottom in actual goals. This is right in line with where Berhalter’s teams have been with expected goals.

The issue in 2018 is the team isn’t finishing its chances. More specifically, players other than Zardes aren’t scoring. The Columbus forward is second in the league behind Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez in xG at 17.6, just 1.6 behind his actual total. You have to scroll well down the list to find the next Crew SC player, Higuain whose xG are six with five actual finishes.

According to Berhalter, the Black & Gold have created enough chances throughout the season to be higher on this list and he believes his team will continue to score goals at a higher rate.

“I know that if we’re able to produce the amount of chances that we have been producing, we’re going to score goals,” the head coach said. And if you look at the last three games, we had a lot of shots. A lot of shots. A lot of shots on goal.”

Berhalter may be right and the last two games may be a sign of things to come for the Columbus offense. Or Crew SC could do what it’s done all year and go back to struggling offensively after back-to-back positive goal-scoring performances.

But maybe that doesn’t matter.

As the team gets closer to the end of the regular season, the only thing that counts are results. While scoring goals certainly helps get results, keeping the ball out of the back of the net also goes a long way. That’s something the Black & Gold have been able to do this year better than they did in previous seasons under Berhalter.

Through 30 games played, Columbus is tied for the third best defense in MLS with only 38 goals allowed. The best defense of Berhalter’s tenure was conceding 42 times in 2014. Crew SC also ranks third in shutouts with nine in 2018. When it comes to expected goals allowed, the Black & Gold are best in the league at 31.2 xGA, 3.1 better than the next best team.

While scoring goals in bulk has led to regular season and playoff success for Crew SC in the past, not allowing goals could be the key this year.

“If you can keep it to zero then we feel like we have the opportunity to score goals,” Trapp said. “Whether it’s home or away, we feel confident in how we’re defending and we’ve faced a lot of different attacks this year. Offensive transition, build up teams, all that type of stuff. So I think we’re really comfortable in how we’re defending and gearing up, changing and tweaking things per opponent, which has been really good to see.”

The defensive improvements make sense. Jonathan Mensah, in his second year, has settled into MLS. Likewise Lalas Abubakar has been more consistent in his second professional season and goalkeeper Zack Steffen has carried over his performances from late last year. The Black & Gold acquired a more defensive-minded left back in Milton Valenzuela and Josh Williams has once again been more than serviceable.

As he has all season, though, Berhalter isn’t putting all of the defensive success on the defense.

“It’s collective effort,” he said. “We talk about that all the time. It’s 11 guys defending. It starts with the top guys and it ends with the goalkeeper. But it is 100 percent a collective effort. A lot of the stuff we’re identifying that we could do good defensively starts with the top guys.”

All season, Crew SC has done things a little backwards. While Zardes has been scoring regularly, the rest of the team has not and that’s impacted the offensive numbers. But the defense has more than made up for it and that’s why the Black & Gold are nearly assured of another postseason appearance.

Once the teams gets to the playoffs, they will yet again take a different approach from previous trips. They say defense wins championships and, if Columbus can keep up its season-long trajectory, Crew SC are in good shape to make another deep run toward MLS Cup.