Saturday’s 3-0 loss for Columbus Crew SC at the hands of the Philadelphia Union was disappointing for Black & Gold fans but it wasn’t completely surprising. While confidence was high in Columbus after an undefeated preseason — even though that shouldn’t matter — and a 2-0-1 start to the Caleb Porter era, there was plenty of indication that this Crew team was going to struggle at some point. I told you as much in the Massive Report predictions for the match.
The signs were there if you were paying attention but the unbeaten run, along with the positivity surrounding the club after almost losing it to Austin, had some seeing with black and gold colored glasses.
While the Crew did get off to a positive start to the year, the schedule has not been difficult to validate this team as an Eastern Conference contender. At least not yet. The New York Red Bulls brought their second team to Columbus for opening day while dealing with CONCACAF Champions League play midweek and still managed a 1-1 draw, the New England Revolution are worse than expected and FC Dallas doesn’t seem to know what it is quite yet under a new head coach.
Offensively, this team Black & Gold remains as anemic as it was a year ago when the Black & Gold scored just 43 goals in 34 matches. And you didn’t need to watch Saturday’s shutout loss to know that. Fourteen Major League Soccer sides have scored more goals than Columbus and the Crew is one of only two teams — along with Sporting Kansas City — to be above the playoff line with less than five goals scored.
Of those four goals, two have come from Gaston Sauro off corner kicks. In Sauro’s 10-year professional soccer career prior to 2019 — admittedly he did miss a large portion of the last two seasons — the center back had a combined three goals and stated last week that he was surprised he’s found the back of the net twice. The other two goals came from forward Gyasi Zardes, who the Black & Gold relied too much in 2018 to put the ball in the back of the net due to his teammates struggling to do so.
Once again, the wingers are not producing. While Pedro Santos has played better to start this season, the criticism will continue to come until he puts the ball in the net a few times, even if that’s not his main objective when on the field. Justin Meram has not been the same player, when it comes to scoring goals, as he was before he left Columbus for Orlando City -- though his goal on international duty might help that. Robinho hasn’t played enough to fairly judge him, but inconsistency seems to be associated with the Brazilian.
Only five Crew players have at least four shots on the season, meaning Columbus is not generating enough opportunities. Of those five players, two of them are defenders, indicating those in the attack are not finding looks at goal.
Without Zardes or central midfielder Wil Trapp on Saturday, the offense took an even further step back, recording five total shots and only one on target, which came from a long-range effort early that was easily saved. Creative playmaker Federico Higuain, while on the ball often, did little to negate the missing offensive pieces, something that was expected of the veteran heading into the match.
What appeared to be positive in the first three games was the defense for the Black & Gold, which came into Saturday’s match with two consecutive shutouts. Porter’s team had done a good job in the middle block winning the ball and preventing quick counter attacks and Zack Steffen, per usual, has made some important saves.
On Saturday, though, the team was unable to do prevent those counters, giving the ball away in bad spots leading to all three goals. For a team that prides itself on possession coming out of the back, Columbus was not very good in that department. Also, when the ball did turn over, the defenders struggled to make plays and, with no Steffen behind them, that led to goals. It was the first time this year fans have seen mistakes from Jonathan and Sauro, while Afful’s defending continues to not be his strongest attribute.
It is more likely than not that the Crew will continue to be a good defensive team, but Saturday showed what happens when there are mistakes at the back. Steffen has prevented many of these from becoming goals — a penalty kick save, racing off his line to tackle the ball away — but he is leaving in July, and likely sooner due to the Gold Cup, and Joe Bendik or Jon Kempin will have to emerge quickly.
A final issue is depth. Porter spoke last week about how he liked the veteran group and he believed this team had enough depth to get results when key players were out. It was only one game, but the likes of Bendik, Ricardo Clark and Patrick Mullins did not live up to the starters they replaced. In MLS, the teams with depth tend to have the most success. Look at what the Red Bulls did Week 1.
What we saw on Saturday wasn’t new; the loss just exposed a series of weaknesses on this team that maybe weren’t as apparent or discussed while the Crew was getting results.
The good news for the Black & Gold is that it’s early and this game presents Porter and his staff plenty of time to figure out the issues and train on them. The team must find ways to create more quality scoring chances and not give the ball away in spots that quickly become costly. Zardes can’t be relied upon to do all the goal scoring and he will miss time with the U.S National Team, while Sauro may not score another goal all year. The buildup must be smarter to prevent teams like the Union from quickly transitioning and getting into the Crew’s penalty box where defending can be suspect.
It’s certainly not time to hit panic button in Columbus but the loss in Philadelphia certainly muted the celebrations that have been going on around Black & Gold Nation the last few weeks.