Soccer is a game of moments and opportunities. While the winner of any given game is not necessarily the better team on the day, the side that comes out on top is almost always the one that is best in those moments, that seizes the opportunities. Over the last three matches, despite arguably playing better than they have all season, Columbus Crew SC has failed in crucial moments and faced teams that were very opportunistic.
The best example of that fact was Wednesday’s 1-0 loss to D.C. United. The Black & Gold entered the match knowing the danger of a player like Wayne Rooney in and around the penalty box. They knew if they gave him one or two opportunities, he would score.
“I think when you have a Rooney, he doesn’t need many (opportunities). He needs one, maybe two,” head coach Caleb Porter said before the game. “Some of the other strikers, maybe they need four or five. I think that’s the biggest thing with him.”
For Rooney, it took just one chance, a 27th-minute free kick. The set piece came on D.C.’s best series of combination passing of the game through its top players, Rooney, Luciano Acosta and Paul Arriola. One touch and pass from United and Columbus was pulled apart, causing center back Josh Williams to foul Arriola at the top of the penalty box and Rooney did the rest, curling his free kick around the Crew wall and into the corner of the net.
D.C. truly got what they paid for in that moment, with their top-priced players creating the chance and Rooney showing his quality from a dead-ball situation. Those players, and United as a team, were quiet the rest of the night, choosing to sit back and defend the 1-0 advantage, but, as was the case in the two games prior, the Black & Gold couldn’t find the equalizer.
“That’s this league,” Porter said. “I’m confident we have guys that can score goals. It’s just disappointing that we had so much of the game and so much sustained pressure and way more chances and positions and crosses and set pieces. I think we had double the set pieces. I think we had maybe triple or quadruple the crosses. So that’s the good and the bad. I’m telling you that we’re dominating.”
The loss marked Columbus’ third consecutive, a streak the Crew hadn’t been on in just over a year. The losing comes during a period where the team is actually playing some of its best offensive soccer, creating more chances than the group did while winning at the beginning of the season. But the Black & Gold have not seized those moments and the goals are not coming.
In the 1-0 loss to the Montreal Impact, Columbus had numerous chances in the penalty box to take a lead before a second-half mistake at the back led to the lone goal for the visitors. The Crew conceded the team’s first set-piece goal of 2019 in 54 attempts against the Portland Timbers, before two more defensive lapses led to a 3-1 loss. Then there was the loss at home to D.C., a place United hadn’t won since 2007.
While the results haven’t been there, the performances have and that’s what is keeping the Black & Gold’s belief in what they’re doing alive.
“I mean it shows. We’ve been dominant in the last three games,” fullback Hector Jimenez said. “If we look at the schedule, yesterday I was looking at it and I was like, ‘We probably don’t deserve to lose all the three games that we’ve lost.’ But sometimes that’s the way the ball rolls. As long as we remain positive, we keep doing what we were doing yesterday and in the last few games, I’m pretty sure we’ll get a breakthrough here.”
At this point in the year, the Crew can’t go out and sign new offensive pieces, so what can be done differently to score goals and turn the positive play into results?
On Wednesday, Columbus served in 44 crosses but only connected on six. Doing better in that department would be a good start.
“I think varying the spots in which we’re trying to cross the ball from,” captain Wil Trapp said after the loss to D.C. “The most joy we got was when we were getting in between the lines and then being inside the box and crossing there. I think these deep crosses are easy to read, easy to head out. So bringing the ball interior-wise and then trying to penetrate again wide while they’ve rotated into the middle I think was what we needed to do a little bit more.”
The Crew will also continue to train and work on how it wants to get in positions to score goals. Porter likes what he sees when he turns on the film, he just doesn’t like the recent results. The final pass, the run, the hunger to score goals are things that can be improved upon on the practice field.
Columbus’ locker room these last few weeks was not a negative place. This team understands the ups and downs of a Major League Soccer season and how to ride those waves. The Crew believes in what they are doing and that the goals, and therefore the results, will come. It’s just taking advantage of the moments and being an opportunistic team.
“My message is everything has been what we want it to be,” Porter said. “Attitude, organization, in terms of us game planning, it’s all been there. But the final third, the final ball and the finish, that’s the one piece we didn’t get right last game. And that’s an important piece to get right.”