In the past 10 MLS matches, Columbus Crew SC earned four out of a possible 30 points. To put it another way, the Crew won one game out of the past 10 matches. And to put it yet another way, this miserable 10-game stretch has roughly been one-third of the 2019 Major League Soccer regular season.
While the Crew earned a nice 1-0 win against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds in the fourth round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup this past Tuesday night, Columbus should have managed to score more than just one goal at home against an inferior opponent from the USL Championship.
Some good news is that Crew head coach Caleb Porter was given a desperately-needed lifeline with the Gold Cup break from MLS play to hit the restart button after his worrisome start leading the Black & Gold during the first half of the regular season. Simplicity via mastering (or remastering) the fundamentals of the beautiful game should be a top priority at the Crew’s practice facility in Obetz.
Here are three fundamental things Porter’s Crew needs to focus on in the short-term in order to see success over the second half of the year:
The Number Zero
The Crew needs to prioritize defensive shutouts, even if this adjustment disrupts the offensive strategy of wingbacks constantly shooting forward along the sidelines.
New starting goalkeeper Jon Kempin — or Joe Bendik, if he wins the job back — needs his defense (and himself) to be fundamentally sound when it comes to organization in the back and being acutely aware of opposing players in the run of play, during counter-attacks and on free kicks. If this means ensuring the original four defenders remain in the back to shore things up for the next few games, then so be it.
And if Porter is going to insist on playing the ball out of the back on the ground beginning with Kempin, then Porter and his assistant coaches need to devise a few exit strategies by practicing a variety of high-pressure scenarios that allow Columbus to successfully beat the pressure and maintain possession to advance the ball to players in the midfield during the games.
Open up the Wings
Robinho and David Accam are speedy, dynamic wingers who are being overwhelmed in mismatches out wide. The aforementioned Crew wingers have a competitive advantage with their speed and quick-cutting footwork, which would be best utilized in open spaces for runs off the ball and in 1 v. 1 opportunities that would allow Robinho and Accam to showcase their playmaking skills for goals and/or assists. Having a couple of Crew players supporting both wingers (i.e.- triangle passing) when they receive the ball on the flanks would help put Robinho and Accam in advantageous situations moving forward in the attack.
Familiarity in the Columbus starting 11 is essential to righting the ship in the short term —especially with new players in key positions — and subsequently in reintroducing more dynamic formations in the longer term, which would be helped by playing in the now old-school 4-4-2 for at least the next few games. Each level of the formation needs cohesion as individual units before achieving creative fluidity as a team that will create and score goals in a variety of ways and earns shutouts on the defensive side of the pitch.
And since the Crew doesn’t seem inclined to actively involve Zardes in non-scoring opportunities with passes on the ground during stretches of possession — in which lots of quick, back and forth passes between Zardes and Pedro Santos and/or David Guzman in the middle could eventually assist in moving the opposition for opening up lanes for attacking — then the Black & Gold need to put a second forward up top. Valuable reps for Patrick Mullins and/or JJ Williams alongside Zardes will add a new challenge for opposing defenses and opportunities for Columbus in the final third.
At this point, the Crew just needs an identity that’s not defined by losing. It’s as simple as that.