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Blowout: Crew smacked by Union for first loss of 2019

Without multiple starters out, the Crew did not look like a first-place team.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Philadelphia Union Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Columbus Crew SC’s 2019 season started so brightly. Riding high off the momentum of Save The Crew, the Black & Gold started the year 2-0-1 and came in at the top of the Eastern Conference in Major League Soccer.

The team went crashing back to Earth on Saturday night, losing 3-0 to the previously winless Philadelphia Union on the road. The game featured little offensive creativity from the visitors and possession and defensive lapses that were uncharacteristic in the first three games of the year.

For much of the first half, there was nothing of note to discuss other than a few half chances for either side. Crew right back Harrison Afful playing a one-time cross that missed forward Patrick Mullins was the most notable play of the first half an hour.

While the Black & Gold weren’t creating much, the team was defending well, something that has been a staple under new head coach Caleb Porter. Coming into the game, Columbus had given up just one goal, the conceded in the season-opening game against the New York Red Bulls. That all changed in the 31st minute.

Just beyond the half-hour mark, Federico Higuain gave the ball away in the attacking half. Philadelphia turned on the counter jets, getting into their own attacking third in three passes before Fabrice-Jean Picault slipped a ball in behind to David Accam. The speedy winger raced into the penalty box and neatly kissed his shot off the far post and into the net, beating backup goalkeeper Joe Bendik.

This goal was Accam’s first since July of last season. It came because Harrison Afful was caught pushing up and couldn’t recover quickly enough to his longtime friend. Jonathan Mensah attempted to cover the ground across the field but was simply not quick enough.

After struggling in front of goal for nearly a year, Accam found a second for the Union just 10 minutes after his first. This goal began on another giveaway, this time from Afful near midfield. A cutting pass in between Jonathan and Gaston Sauro found Accam in the penalty box. Sauro slipped, Jonathan couldn’t make the tackle and Afful was again late getting back before the winger tucked the ball into the net for the first half brace.

Despite a chance to regroup in the locker room at the break, the Crew came out in the second half and almost immediately gave up the third goal. A cross from the left by the Union found Ilsinho in the penalty box after Robinho’s bicycle kick clearance attempt did not come off. The midfielder roofed his shot for the 3-0 advantage.

Even while trailing by multiple goals in the second half, the Black & Gold could not find any offense over the final 45 minutes, continually struggling to connect passes further up the field and registering no shots on goal after going down 3-0.

Exposed

Late this week, Crew head coach Caleb Porter discussed how he liked the depth the Black & Gold has, comparing it to some of his more successful Porter Timbers teams of the past. He believed his veteran backups would fill in for the unavailable Zack Steffen, Wil Trapp, Gyasi Zardes, Waylon Francis and Justin Meram.

On Saturday, the depth looked like just bodies more than viable players. While the likes of Joe Bendik, Ricardo Clark, Patrick Mullins, Hector Jimenez and Robinho weren’t directly to blame for the goals conceded or the lack of offense, they certainly weren’t at replacement level, as a whole, for the Black & Gold.

Disappearing act

With so many players missing, Columbus needed the team’s top talent to step up. Number one on that list is midfield maestro, Federico Higuain. The Crew’s offensive creator, who is usually good for some magic every game, was nowhere to be found in this contest. He turned the ball over in the build up to the first goal and Higuain was never a factor offensively for the Black & Gold.

Higuain remains one of the league’s most under-appreciated players and certainly the best on the Columbus roster, but when the Crew needed him the most this year to be an offensive catalyst, he was invisible.

What’s next

The Crew will want to quickly put this performance behind them and focus on what’s next. That means a date with the defending MLS Cup champions, Atlanta United, next Saturday at MAPFRE Stadium. United has not played up to their championship-winning level this year, going 0-1-2 to start the season. The Black & Gold will also have their national team pieces back, which should provide a much-needed boost after Saturday’s performance.

That game will kick off at 7:30 p.m. ET.