Through the first 13 games of the 2020 Major League Soccer regular season, the Columbus Crew could do little wrong. The Black & Gold had just one loss, was playing historic defense and sat atop the league’s standings.
Over the last four matches, the Crew can now do little right. The team is winless in four games — although no one will fault getting a draw in Dallas — and now trails both Toronto FC and the Philadelphia Union in the Eastern Conference and only leads Orlando City SC on goal differential.
Over this stretch, Columbus has looked far from the team that navigated this COVID-19 broken season so well and appeared destined for a Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup run at the end of the year. A home loss to the Montreal Impact — ninth place in the East at the time of this writing — and the first ever MLS defeat at the hands of in-state rivals FC Cincinnati have flipped the script on what was once such a promising season in the eyes of fans.
“From our end to a man — our players across the board, myself, the staff — not good enough,” head coach Caleb Porter said after the loss at Cincinnati on Wednesday. “Not good enough. We didn’t play well, as simple as that sounds, individually and collectively.”
The loss to FC Cincy is the most confounding of all the recent results. The Crew dominated Cincinnati this year, holding a 7-0 scoreline in three matches over the team’s Ohio brother. The only game in the series Jaap Stam’s men could feel at all pleased about was the 0-0 home draw in late August in a game where the Black & Gold really felt they let two points slip away.
Cincinnati entered Wednesday’s game on a four-match losing streak and without a win in five contests. The last victory, a 1-0 win against the New York Red Bulls on Sept. 19, was also the last time FC Cincy scored a goal, and that came directly from a corner kick. Yet Cincinnati — with arguably some help from the officiating crew — managed to score twice against Columbus.
To Stam’s credit, he made changes to his team. Missing numerous starters, he adjusted to a 4-3-3 formation that was much more attacking than in previous FC Cincinnati contests. But the Crew was aware of what the opponent was going to do and had a plan to handle the new tactic.
“We knew they’d press,” Porter said of Cincinnati. “So we had a plan to soften the press and go in behind the line. I thought the first three or four times we had the opportunity to do that, we didn’t drive the ball behind the line, technical errors. Just kicking out of bounds or driving it to a center back to pop it back at us, and then we didn’t win enough second balls.”
The troubling thing is how poorly this plan was executed. In the early portions of the match, the Black & Gold struggled to find the attacking half of the field. FC Cincy, a side that still has a league-low 10 goals scored — controlled the midfield and created chance after chance. At halftime, Cincinnati had six shots to Columbus’ one, and that one came from a penalty kick in the dying seconds.
This is a growing concern for the Crew, a team that has now fallen behind in each of the last three matches due to slow starts to games. The last time the Black & Gold scored first, it was a Toronto player who mistakenly put the ball in the back of his own net.
Relying on an impressive defense for most of the year, the Columbus offense has had time to settle into games. But that defense has conceded goals in the opening 25 minutes in each of the last two matches to put the team behind the eight ball. After allowing just five goals through those first 13 games, the Crew has conceded nine goals in this four-match stretch.
This is all a way of saying that what worked so well for the Black & Gold for much of the season isn’t working at the moment. And now it’s up to the team to get it corrected.
“I have to look at myself first,” Porter said on Wednesday. “We didn’t get individual performances, we didn’t look cohesive. And it was little things, like not moving the ball quick enough, not finding the right pass, getting caught on the ball. I thought our build-up was not clean enough, that’s been a major strength of this team all season.”
There are obvious reasons Columbus is not playing as well as earlier in the year. With Eloy Room, Darlington Nagbe and Lucas Zelarayan all out with injuries, the Crew hasn’t had the spine of its team on the field together in over a month. These players were all crucial to the Black & Gold’s climb to the top of the standings and injuries have affected performances.
But the Crew spent the offseason building a team with depth and Columbus found ways to get results earlier in the year when players missed time. Against a top team like Toronto, missing pieces is a legit excuse. But if the Black & Gold is a top team, as Porter and company strive to be, Andrew Tarbell, Fatai Alashe or Adian Morris and Pedro Santos are good enough to beat Montreal and Cincinnati.
“I’m very disappointed that the results have not gone, in recent games, the way we’ve wanted them to, and that we’ve not played as well as we had been playing,” Porter admitted. “So I have to figure that out. I have to figure out why that is, why aren’t we getting individual performances that are aligned with the potential of some of our senior players and our top guys. I have to figure that out.
“I will have some conversations with guys. Not pointing fingers, but it’s my job to help work some guys out of a funk. Because clearly, there are a few guys that, for whatever reason — I have to figure it out — aren’t playing well.”
There remain five games left on the Crew’s schedule and likely a sixth against Orlando after a postponement over the weekend. The Black & Gold need just two more wins to lock up a playoff spot, something the team didn’t achieve last year. While Supporters’ Shield hopes are slipping away, Columbus is still only seven points back of first place Toronto.
It’s no doubt that the Crew is struggling right now and is in need of something to turn the ship around. That begins with some introspection and hard work to get things right.
“I gotta look at everything,” Porter said. “We’re not gonna panic. I’ve been around the block quite a long time and been through low moments before and we’ve got to just stay on track and just break this game down and figure it out and we’ve got three days to turn it around and we’ve got a home game (against New York City FC on Sunday). And if we win that game then obviously that solves a lot.”