Another sagging performance from the Columbus Crew in October. This time it was a 1-0 loss in the nation’s capital against D.C. United on Wednesday night. Even though it bore strong similarities to recent Crew losses, there were some key takeaways from the game as the team gets closer to closing out the regular season and the looming MLS Cup playoffs.
Let’s take a look at what we learned from this game.
Head coach Caleb Porter’s competitive fire burns brightly, but that fire isn’t all consuming. The Crew head coach was forced to rotate as the team is in the midst of a brutal stretch of five games in 16 days. Six of the 11 in the starting lineup were changes from the 1-1 draw against the Houston Dyanmo on the weekend. So his priorities are coming clear — it’s getting healthy and rested for a deep playoff run at the potential sacrifice of locking in a top-two spot in the East.
That meant that Lucas Zelarayan and Darlington Nagbe, both recenlty back from injuries, didn’t start for the Crew, but both got 33-minute stamina building, not leg-killing cameos as Columbus tried to claw its way back into the game. That also meant that Waylon Francis made his first appearance in Black & Gold in over a year, stepping in for Milton Valenzuela, who got his first break since the MLS is Back Tournament in July when he was recovering from injury.
Artur also got a rare break, his first “Did Not Play” since July of 2019 with Sebastian Berhalter coming on in his place. With Harrison Afful sidelined due to suspension, Chris Cadden made his first appearance in six games and his first start in 14 contests, dating back to the August loss to New York City FC.
Many of these Crew players have logged a lot of minutes in the rapid-fire end to the season. Porter realizes that pushing a strong lineup in D.C. would likely cost the team in November. But it Porter’s own words, Columbus is going to finish the season with a strong group. “We’re going to put our best foot forward with our top lineup in the last three games.”
A home playoff game isn’t a lock
At the end of September, the Crew was sitting in first place with the best record in MLS despite a loss to Toronto FC in a competitive game that ended 3-1. The Black & Gold’s record was 9-2-3, which was good for 30 points and a +15 goal differential.
In October, Columbus has slipped up, with a 1-3-2 record. The Crew stands at 10-5-5 on the year after earning four points all month. The Philadelphia Union is nine points ahead and a near-lock for the Supporters’ Shield. Toronto has played an extra game and has six more points. Getting to second will be a challenge for the Black & Gold.
The bigger concern is the possibility of losing a home playoff game if the team’s slide continues. The Crew is currently in third place, edging Orlando City in wins. Columbus is a mere two points ahead of fifth-place NYCFC. Although they have a game in hand, the team’s current form puts them uncomfortably close to traveling to open the playoffs.
To find the last time the Crew won a true, non-MLS is Back road game, you have to go back to Sept. 14th, 2019. That was a 3-1 win against Atlanta United. In 2020, the Black & Gold have lost away to New York City, Toronto, FC Cincinnati and D.C. United. The team has tied Cincinnati, the Chicago Fire, FC Dallas and the Dynamo away from MAPFRE Stadium.
Zone 14 remains the Bermuda quadrangle
Pedro Santos is not your typical playmaking No. 10. He’s not going to pick out passes to create chances. He will dribble and take players on. Without Zelarayan and Nagbe, he’s also the best option that the Crew has at playmaker, as you can see by his passing chart below.
That’s not a recipe for creativity. The Crew with Santos was not effective in “Zone 14,” that space just above the penalty area where teams can create better chances. That’s not Santos’ fault; it’s not his game. It takes a special skill set to create regularly in the teeth of the defense.
Porter had two players who are excellent in those tight spaces and was able to bring them in during the final 33 minutes. The challenges, however, persisted, as you can see by looking at Zelarayan and Nagbe’s passes.
Zelarayan was pushed into wider and deeper spaces while Nagbe played further back in his normal circulator role. Zelarayan wasn’t able to put balls into the penalty box, that fell to the wingers and wingbacks to create through crosses.
If there’s a (small) bright sign during this stretch, it’s that pass highlighted in yellow above. That’s Nagbe’s 85th-minute entry pass that led to Jonathan Mensah’s off-target shot. It wasn’t much, but it was a quick decision to put the ball into the 18-yard box before the defense was truly set. Jonathan barely made contact, but there wasn’t a D.C. player within two yards of him. That’s the benefit of the passes from the center, they can unsettle a rooted defense.
For the Crew attack to revert to its excellent summer form, the Black & Gold will need to see more of those passes coming from Zone 14 through either a moment of Zelarayan brilliance or Nagbe’s relentless precision.