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What We Learned: Crew vs. Philadelphia Union

Even this late in the season, there’s still plenty to take away from the Black & Gold’s win.

Philadelphia Union v Columbus Crew SC Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

The Columbus earned a massive three points on Sunday in front of a national television audience, defeating the league-leading Philadelphia Union 2-1 at MAPFRE Stadium. The game was the first of the final three from the Major League Soccer regular season for the Crew, meaning it’s about time to put up or shut up.

While it wasn’t a completely dominant performance from the Black & Gold, despite having Eloy Room, Darlington Nagbe, Lucas Zelarayan and Gyasi Zardes on the field together for the first time in 12 games, it was still a game Columbus needed to have.

And even at this late point in the season, we’re still learning things about this team. Let’s take a look at our biggest takeaways from this important win.

The Crew can throw a counterpunch

In last week’s What We Learned, we discussed how the Crew was missing dangerous passes from Zone 14 without Zelarayan and Nagbe in the lineup against D.C. United. Did the Crew fair better with them back in the lineup?

In a word, no. Not against a good Philadelphia team. However, that seemed to be the game plan. Looking back at where the Crew’s goals came from, it’s clear that the team was not going to control the possession in the classical sense to break down the Union.

For the first goal, Columbus won a 50/50 clearance and ended up taking a long shot (from Zone 14) that put the Black & Gold ahead. That was a goal that came off of team defense.

The second goal was even more indicative of what the Crew was trying to do. Philadelphia was on the front foot throughout much of the game. The team’s diamond setup in the midfield often leaves the formation narrow. It chokes attacks coming through the middle, but at the expense of giving up space wide. Columbus took advantage.

With the Union desperate for a goal, the Crew pushed the ball vertical into the wide channels. The speedy Luis Diaz instantly put Philadelphia on the back foot and Krisztian Nemeth created late-game magic with his genius run.

The Black & Gold want to be a team that controls the game and plays attractive soccer but in cases like Sunday, that’s not necessary. And going into the playoffs, wins are all that count. This was a tactic to get a win.

There IS a depth to this team

Let’s talk about Nemeth a little bit more. His goal scoring record isn’t the best. In his five MLS seasons, he has scored 21 goals in 85 games. If he were leading the line for the Crew, the team would likely look to upgrade. However, he is the relief and change of pace that Columbus thought the team got with Fanendo Adi. It didn’t.

While Adi is nominally a target striker, a true plan B, Nemeth appears similar to Zardes. Nemeth works very well for what the Crew tries to do offensively. This team isn’t built to dump the ball into the penalty box reliably. However, Nemeth with veteran savvy and fresh legs absolutely clowned Jakob Glesnes on the game-winning goal with his sprint then drift to get space.

The other key player in the buildup to the goal, Diaz, has been up and down in 2020. There are games where he looks absolutely dominant for stretches but struggles with consistency. However, his surging runs are irresistible. This year, Diaz, Nemeth, Aidan Morris and DerrickEtienne Jr. have provided energy off the bench. As the team gets healthy, these players won’t have to be the stars of the show but can play their role and do things like we saw on Sunday off the bench.

And there’s a defense that bends but doesn’t break

In the early months of the 2020 season, the narrative behind this Crew team was one of an MLS contender with a talented offense, but the defense truly elevated the group. This team simply didn’t give up goals. That changed as summer turned to fall and goals were conceded.

The Black & Gold defense pulled out a vintage endless summer performance against the Union, only giving up a penalty kick goal on the day. It’s true that Philadelphia managed 22 shots, which isn’t normally indicative of a good defensive performance, but Columbus escaped nearly unscathed through a combination of outstanding goalkeeping (eight Eloy Room saves) and committed team defense inside the 18-yard box (five blocked shots and seven shots off target).

The game plan put the defense under more pressure and the team probably wants to limit those chances in the future. If there is one creeping concern, it’s Jonathan Mensah. Throughout the defensive ups and downs this year, Jonathan was excellent. He was dominant in the air, able to win a physical battle with anyone in the league and set the tone for the defense.

Jonathan, however, was not good on Sunday. He got beat and was chasing when he gave up the penalty kick and he was casual on the ball several times, twice nearly leading to goals. Sunday’s performance was so noticeable perhaps given how good he’s been in 2020. Perhaps it was a one-game aberration, it’s likely actually, but the Crew defense is better with a dialed-in Jonathan leading the rearguard.