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Mental mistakes, lack of focus have caused the Crew to leak ‘cheap goals’ recently

One of the better defensive teams in the league earlier this season, the Black & Gold now are conceding too frequently.

MLS: Los Angeles FC at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Struggling to score goals is nothing new for Columbus Crew SC. What is new for the Black & Gold is how frequently the team is conceding in 2019.

Despite being one of the better scoring teams in Major League Soccer for most of Gregg Berhalter’s five-year tenure as head coach, the Crew put the ball in the net just 43 times last season, tied for the second-worst offense in the league. What allowed Columbus to make the MLS Cup playoffs for the fourth time in five years was the play of the defense, which was much improved in 2018, allowing the sixth-fewest goals in MLS.

While this year started brightly defensively with four shutouts in the first six games, the Crew under new head coach Caleb Porter have allowed 14 goals in the last seven matches, six of which have ended in losses.

“I think we’ve been defending pretty well. I think it’s been similar,” Porter said when asked about this recent poor form defensively. “I think we’ve been punished a little bit more. I also think we’ve made a few more mistakes.”

Throughout the season, the Black & Gold have talked about needing to be better in certain moments. Typically this has come on the offensive end and involved Columbus not finishing chances, but the same can be said with allowing goals defensively.

Starting with the April 13 loss at the Montreal Impact, which began a five-game losing streak, mistakes at the back have cost the Crew. In that game, it was a poor pass between center backs. Other times it’s been giving up free kicks in bad areas and then not defending properly or players giving the ball away in dangerous spots.

On Saturday against Los Angeles Football Club, the Black & Gold were down 1-0 to MLS’s best team in the second half and creating chances to equalize. But a bad back-pass from newcomer David Guzman and miscommunication between Jonathan Mensah and backup goalkeeper Joe Bendik led to a second goal for the visitors in the 88th minute. A giveaway, poor tackling and a moment of brilliance from Carlos Vela two minutes later and Los Angeles left MAPFRE Stadium with a flattering 3-0 win.

“It’s just individual plays within the game that seem to be causing one or two goals that you leak in and that opens a game up completely and it changes everyone’s perception of it,” captain and midfielder Wil Trapp said. “We feel 10 times worse because you’re giving up goals and the fans’ perceptions — this could have been 1-1 game. I’m not going to make an excuse about it but if we score one chance and don’t give up the easy one, maybe it’s 1-1, or we go up 2-1 even.”

The results are what they are and right now, with the exception of a 3-1 win over the LA Galaxy on Wednesday, those results aren’t going the Crew’s way. Mistakes at the back are certainly a reason for that, as well as the lack of goals scored, but what’s curious is those mistakes weren’t costing the team early in the year when Columbus got out to a 4-1-1 start.

“It just seemed like earlier in the season, everything was clicking,” fullback Hector Jimenez said. “I don’t think we got punished when we made those mistakes. In the later games, in that losing streak, you can tell, like the Montreal game, it’s just little mental mistakes. We’ve got to stay focused all 90 minutes.”

A major difference is the quality of offensive opponent the Black & Gold faced in recent weeks. Names like Vela, Wayne Rooney and Mauro Manotas have come against the Crew and taken advantage of the mistakes at the back that likes of Juan Agudelo or the New York Red Bulls’ reserves weren’t doing in games prior.

But the MLS schedule doesn’t get any easier and Columbus is going to have to start staying focused for a full 90 minutes or risk conceding further goals and potentially more losses.

“I think the biggest part of it is someone take control, take charge,” Trapp said. “And also just concentration I think is key in those moments because it is exacerbated when you’re not scoring and then you leak the cheap goal, so to speak. Those just feel even more debilitating because you’re trying so hard to score and then they don’t have to do much and then they score.”

The Crew right now are in a difficult moment in time with the recent losses. There are excuses that could be made for nearly all of the defeats, but this is a results business and no one wants to hear excuses.

What the Black & Gold can say is the errors that are causing the team to leak goals more frequently than they have in the last season-plus are all fixable and something the collective group is working to improve.

“We talked about it that we can’t be giving up those goals anymore because we get behind the ball and it’s tough to come back sometimes from those mistakes,” Jimenez stressed. “So hopefully we can move forward and try to avoid that stuff and get the the first goal. Because I feel like when we get up on the board, it’s better for us. It seems like we get a good result when that happens.”