Sunday was a day of relief for Columbus Crew SC.
In what has been a difficult year filled with frustrating results, injuries and departures, the Black & Gold earned a 3-1 win over in-state rivals FC Cincinnati, the team’s first victory in the new Hell is Real Derby.
“I think what was good about it was we showed the type of football that we can play and a bit of the vision moving forward of what we want it to look like,” head coach Caleb Porter said of the win. “That first half was the best half of the year and I thought it was as close to the vision of how we want to play moving forward as we’ve had all season long.”
Prior to the season, Porter, who replaced new U.S. Men’s National Team head Gregg Berhalter in the offseason, talked about wanting to play “dominant football.” He spoke of the Crew being aggressive and attacking, pressuring the opponent with a counter-press and controlling possession.
For the first five games of the year, Columbus fans saw glimpses of how Porter wants his team to play, but then injuries and international call-ups shook up the lineup. The Black & Gold went into the summer without several first-choice players and it took its toll in the form of one win in 16 games from mid-April to mid-July.
The absences forced Porter to shift his lineup nearly every game, which meant a consistent change in tactics. Porter and his staff did what they could to keep the Crew competitive — only six of the team’s 15 losses this year came by more than one goal — which meant finding tactics that worked with the players on the field each match rather than working on a steady system of play.
After a number of changes in the summer to make the roster more competitive and players returning from injury, Columbus has just one loss in the last eight matches. But Sunday’s performance against Cincinnati was finally reflective of what the Crew planned to do this season and will do going forward, especially in a dominant first 45 minutes that saw the visitors build a 3-0 lead.
“There were a lot of good moments in that first half, whether it was breaking lines when we needed to, getting balls forward, re-pressing after we lost it, just the aggression,” captain Wil Trapp said. “There were tons and tons of interactions when we did a good job of implementing control in the front half but then also verticality of getting behind them and some versatility in terms of how we were creating chances.”
A major part of the Black & Gold’s control of the match came from the play of forward Gyasi Zardes. The striker had a career year under Berhalter in 2018, scoring 19 goals in the regular season, but entered Sunday’s rivalry game with just nine finishes.
In the last two games Zardes played, the forward missed multiple perceived easy chances that could have won both games for Columbus and helped the team climb within touching distance of the final MLS Cup playoff spot. These misses in big moments had some, including this writer, questioning if Zardes was the right striker for the Crew and if the Black & Gold made the right decision to make him a Designated Player earlier this season.
Against Cincinnati, Zardes was the force Columbus expected him to be.
“Obviously that’s what you want out of your striker and your Designated Player,” Porter said. “He’s had a couple rough games and missed some chances and we had some great talks after those games and I kept telling him that I believed in him. I gave him a couple-day break and he bought into it and understood and agreed that he just needed a little bit of a couple days rest and reset and he sure looked like it helped today. It was great for him.”
Not only did Zardes score two well-taken goals to give the Crew a 2-0 lead in the first half, but both finishes proved that the misses of his previous games are not the norm. His one-time strike on the opening goal was reminiscent of the sitter he put off the crossbar against FC Cincy two weeks ago and his second demonstrated control and poise of a top-level MLS forward.
“For me, I’ve been working on making up those chances,” Zardes said. “I remember those misses and I worked on them during training and just to score today from crosses, it shows that hard work pays off.”
But Zardes also showed his other key qualities. His work rate, which is rarely questioned, was on display as he helped his team defensively on numerous occasions. He also played some very nice passes, including getting the play started on the first goal before making a good back-post run for winger Luis Diaz to pick out.
“I give my teammates the credit because they’ve been grinding and putting in the work for us to turn over the ball and to get the ball into the final attack,” Zardes continued.
A season that began with so much promise likely won’t end in glory for the Crew. The Black & Gold sit seven points outside of the final playoff spot with five games to play. While the team isn’t mathematically eliminated yet, it’s likely only a matter of time before the postseason door is shut.
This is disappointing for a club that boasts both talent and coaching but a strong finish to the year could set the table for a resurgent 2020 with a reshaped and motivated group.
More performances like Sunday’s with dominant football and consistent finishing from Zardes will go a long way to instilling belief in this team going forward.
“It’s been a rough year, it’s a challenge, we’ve had adversity,” Porter said. “But we wanted, in spite of all those things, to send our supporters home, make them feel good to remind everybody the type of club we are, the type of team that we are and the type of players that we have.”