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What We Learned: Crew vs. FC Cincinnati

The Black & Gold’s first Hell is Real setback hurts and here are our major takeaways from the match.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at FC Cincinnati Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Columbus Crew wasted a good opportunity to end its terrible run of form as the Black & Gold were downed by in-state rivals FC Cincinnati 2-1 at Nippert Stadium on Wednesday, dropping the first Hell is Real Derby in the Major League Soccer era.

Columbus could not bounce back from recent bad performances against Toronto FC, FC Dallas and the Montreal Impact, extending the team’s winless streak to four matches now.

Here are the four main takeaways from another bad showing from the Crew.

Nothing is too bad that can’t get worse

Columbus entered the match on a rough run of form and even if before the starting whistle it was hard to envision a scenario in which the Black & Gold could end the 90 minutes in worse shape, that’s just the case now.

The Crew has not only lost its first MLS Hell is Real Derby but it has done so in poor fashion, allowing two goals to a team that had failed to score a single time in the last five matches and was missing several key starters. More importantly, Columbus played probably its worst soccer of the entire season and the feeling of frustration was very clear in head coach Caleb Porter’s postgame press conference when he apologized to the fans for maybe the first time since he took over.

Keita is still a work in progress

This is certainly not to place the blame for the setback on the second-year player, but the match against Cincinnati offered more signs that Aboubacar Keita is still far off from being a finished product. The center back’s performance was subpar and his inability to contest Nick Hagglund on his unbothered game-winning header summarized it pretty well.

This wasn’t the first goal conceded by the Crew in which the 20-year-old defender could have done a far better job and while it’s absolutely normal for young players to make mistakes, it might get to a point where those become too costly for the team to play that player in big moments. The fact that Porter used one of his substitutes to take the underperforming defender off, something that is absolutely unusual for a coach to do, when Columbus was trailing sends the message that there’s no more room for these types of errors.

Keita is for sure a talented player and by all indications, he is a hard-working young athlete, so there’s no reason to not believe he will be a starting-caliber MLS defender at some point, but the idea that he was ready to step up and pair with Jonathan Mensah when Vito Wormgoor went down at the beginning of the season looks like as unrealistic as ever at this point.

The midfield remains a problem

Let’s be fair here. Any team in the league would likely struggle with the absence of talented players like Darlington Nagbe and Lucas Zelarayan. The star midfielders played their best during the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando, but since then have struggled to be on the field together and the Crew has not been the same without them – or even one of them.

Porter cannot be accused of not experimenting as the head coach tried at least four different alternatives to replace some of the production brought by the U.S. international and the Argentinean, but the truth is that he had little success on his attempts.

That could raise maybe the only question regarding the Crew’s roster-building process this year, which, don’t get me wrong, has put together the club’s best squad in years. However, while Nagbe has at least three potential substitutes (even though they are not the same quality) in Fatai Alashe, Aidan Morris and Sebastian Berhalter, there’s no player on the roster with a similar style or ability to Zelarayan.

Pedro Santos did a great job playing at the No. 10 spot last year and that’s probably why the Black & Gold thought they had the position covered coming into 2020, but it seems the Portuguese takes time to adjust while switching spots and needs a good sequence of matches to settle, something he hasn’t had with Zelarayan in and out of the lineup.

Referees need to be more consistent

Refereeing was a hot topic after Wednesday’s match and, while this is a subject I personally don’t like to address, it seems necessary now. The biggest concern to me is in regards to the lack of consistency on calls made by referees around the league.

The alleged Andrew Tarbell foul that generated the penalty kick for FC Cincinnati has been repeated on numerous occasions this season and I can’t recall of a single one in which the outcome was the same. I can understand why a referee would call it the way center official Rubiel Vazquez did, but if that’s how that sort of action is interpreted, it should be called that way anytime it happens.

If plays are called the same way on a consistent basis, players, coaches and fans will know what to expect and refereeing will be less of a hot topic. We all expected VAR would help with these decisions, but that hasn’t always been necessarily the case.