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Crew need to get back to basics, starting with the defense

Round 2 against D.C. United will provide a great challenge, and opportunity, for the Crew’s backline.

MLS: D.C. United at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Columbus Crew SC’s recent four-game losing streak has, in no small part, resulted from conceding seven goals over this stretch. This came after allowing just four goals during the first six games — three in one match where Columbus had multiple players missing due to international duty — and beginning the year 4-1-1.

The Crew has been eye-opening in all the wrong ways lately and it has led to a slide down Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference standings and a number of questions. Is this just a series of games with bad luck? Or are there fundamental problems with the Black & Gold under first-year head coach Caleb Porter early in the 2019 season?

This week, Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen expressed a bit of confusion from the past four losses.

“It’s weird because usually we’re so connected, compact and focused, and we don’t really let up many chances,” Steffen told Massive Report. “Lately, we’ve gotten away from that.”

Porter emphasized that Steffen, the final line in his defense, is archetypal of who he wants on his roster and surely someone who will be looked to for the Crew’s necessary course-correction.

“The guy’s a leader,” Porter said. “If he doesn’t get the job done, he puts his hand up, gets it…totally my type of guy.”

Time will ultimately tell if the Crew will get back to getting the job done. Internally, Steffen said there was a team meeting that could serve as a veritable restart button moving forward.

“We pretty much had a heart-to-heart, the whole team, and came together and just had to get back on the same page and get on the same message and get back to our ways and then back to basics,” he explained. “I think we’re in a better spot now.”

That’s encouraging for those looking from the outside in. In the near term, Steffen and his backline will be challenged once again by Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta as Columbus will work to prevent a second loss to D.C. United in the past couple weeks in a tough road environment at Audi Field this Saturday night.

Perhaps more important than a heart-to-heart team meeting, which was necessary, is the need for more consistent, dynamic ball movement and positioning. As noted by Steffen above, a return to basics is key to a turnaround for Columbus. This starts with the backline comprised of Jonathan Mensah, Waylon Francis, Hector Jimenez and Josh Williams, among others, playing with more authority, making better decisions and improving spacing defensively. Keeping the ball, something the team was doing better earlier in the year, also can help defensively, as it’s hard for the opponent to score when they don’t have possession.

And while it’s painfully obvious the offense has to institute more effective tactics and to simply finish chances, the Black & Gold have scored just one goal in nearly a month, improving the Crew’s defense should be a priority right now. A solid defense needs to be, and can be, the constant for this team in the next few games by recognizing that offensive production is, for the time being, a frustrating variable in development.

A 0-0 tie on Saturday at Audi Field would be an improvement and a positive step for Columbus.

And with Steffen leaving for England this summer, ensuring the defense is in stable condition for his successor is essential.

Possession and confidence for the Crew builds from the back and steadily moves forward, which requires flexibility to quickly shift gears when pressed and/or when opportunities arise to influence opponent positioning to create chances. Unfortunately, it’s been apparent in recent weeks that the gear shift – including defensive shifting for marking opponents – for the Black & Gold looks to have a mechanical problem.

It’s time to find Columbus’ mechanic.