When the Columbus Crew SC players and staff took to the training field for the first time this week on Tuesday morning, there was an extra bounce in everyone’s step. The players were all anxious to get back to practice after Saturday’s first loss of the season — a 3-0 thrashing at the hands of the Philadelphia Union — and the coaches were ready to correct the mistakes that led to the defeat.
“It’s always good to get back on the pitch after a result like we had,” head coach Caleb Porter said after the session. “You can get back and you can obviously correct some things and push some things and it’s always good to get that first training under your belts. We had a good meeting, looked at some things on film and talked about some things as a team, things that we need to do better.”
The theme of the practice was simple: the Crew needs to improve. Despite a 2-0-1 start to 2019, the loss to the Union exposed some issues for this team. Porter could be heard across the facility demanding his players be sharp in everything they do. That largely stems from the fact that the Black & Gold were not sharp on Saturday night in Chester, Pennsylvania.
While there wasn’t just one thing that let Columbus down against Philadelphia, the main focus after reviewing the game was in possession. On each of the Union’s goals, the Crew gave the ball away cheaply, allowing the home side to counter-attack and put the defense in bad positions. For a team like the Black & Gold that thrives on having the ball, conceding possession like that is like a bullet to the head.
“It’s a very simple concept of football: you have to value the ball much more,” creative midfielder Federico Higuain said. “From preseason, we’ve been working on that but we know we have to improve that phase of the game because that will give us the chance to be more sharp as a team, to be higher on the field and to be closer to the opponent’s goal to have the chance to score, to create chances to score.
I think the last game wasn’t good. The effort of the pass was very poor also, so we know we have to work. If we want to be a competitive team, we have to work much more in that phase of the game. Value the ball, more movement, be more effective in the final third and be compact as a team.”
While Columbus ended the game with more possession than their opponent, the Crew rarely did anything offensively when they had the ball. The Black & Gold had the team’s fewest shots (5) and shots on goal (1) of the season and were shutout for the first time because the team struggled in build up and couldn’t create quality chances.
Looking into the analytics, the loss to the Union was actually Columbus’ second-worst offensive performance of the season, with an expected goals of 0.83 for the game. This was higher than the 2-0 win over the New England Revolution two weeks prior, where the Crew overachieved on their expected goals of 0.78.
This is all a fancy way of saying that the Black & Gold’s struggle to create quality chances in front of a goal in Philadelphia wasn’t just a one-week issue. Neither was turning the ball over in less than ideal spots.
“Honestly, we’ve struggled with that in the past, turning the ball over and getting countered,” fullback Hector Jimenez admitted. “And we knew that they were one of those teams. But I feel like earlier in the season, we hadn’t been punished for it and this past weekend, it felt like we were wide open in transition.”
There are a number of reasons the Crew could give for why Saturday’s game went the way it did. Columbus was missing a number of key players, the field conditions at Talen Energy Stadium weren’t good, there was a lack of chemistry between the players on the field, winning on the road in Major League Soccer is hard. Those are all excuses and you won’t hear any of them from the Columbus players or coaches.
Instead, the focus from the leaders this week is on learning from this game and then putting it behind them. But most importantly, this week is about improving, a challenge each player and coach needs to embrace to prevent an embarrassing loss like this one from happening again.
“This is football. It’s up and down every weekend. If we don’t understand that, we cannot be here,” Higuain said. “This is football. You have to be strong. You have to understand we’re not doing good in some phases of the game, we’re doing really good in other phases of the game. So we have to keep doing what we’re doing good and we have to improve what we’re not doing good. It’s that simple.”
Well said, Pipa.