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What we learned: Crew vs. Orlando City

Our takeaways from the Black & Gold’s most recent road loss.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Orlando City SC Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Columbus Crew played the penultimate game of the 2020 Major League Soccer regular season on Wednesday night. The result was not in the Crew’s favor.

Columbus went down in the first half once again in this game, conceding a goal from a poor pass out of the back to Orlando City SC on the road. The Black & Gold leveled the score early in the second half but gave up a late game-winner, despite Orlando being down a man for the vast majority of the final 45 minutes after Nani was issued a red card for a tackle on Artur.

There was no denying this was another disappointing result for the Crew in a stretch that has now yielded just two wins in the last nine contests. With one game left before the MLS Cup playoffs, this is a concerning trend.

Even at this late date in the MLS calendar, there are still things to learn about this Black & Gold team. Here are our major takeaways:

Fatigue is real for the Crew

As mentioned above, the Black & Gold have just two wins in the last nine games. Those nine games took place in just over a month. That’s a lot of games in a short amount of time. By comparison, in the normal season that was 2019, Columbus played no more than six games over a similar stretch.

While it may sound like an excuse, or trying to let the Black & Gold off easy, to say this team is tired, is an understatement. Last year, six Columbus players had more than 1,700 minutes played. This season, despite 11 fewer games played to this point, four players registered more than 1,700 minutes. With the way the schedule is this year, those minutes wear on players more and given the injuries and other issues for the Crew, some players have had to take a big workload.

One of those players is center back Jonathan Mensah, who has played all 1,980 minutes for the club this season. While Jonathan has had a career year and is in the running for MLS Defender of the Year, the last few games have seen him make some uncharacteristic mistakes. Head coach Caleb Porter admitted the giveaways out the back and lack of concentration for Jonathan likely came from mental fatigue and stated the Crew wanted to rest him but wasn’t able to due to a lack of other options with Josh Williams suspended for four games.

Jonathan isn’t the only Black & Gold player who has dealt with this fatigue this season but demonstrates how so many minutes in such a short period of time can have a negative effect on players and it’s clear that’s the case with Columbus.

Nagbe and Zelarayan weren’t an immediate fix

There was a thought among the Crew that the return of central midfielder Darlington Nagbe and playmaker Lucas Zelarayan would help restore this team to its form of the first half of the season. This was when the Black & Gold were the best team in MLS and sat atop the Supporters’ Shield table.

It was clear that without Nagbe and Zelarayan, Columbus wasn’t the same team. The group could not play its possession, build-out-of-the-back style that made it successful early in the year and at the MLS is Back Tournament. The Crew had to adjust with players in the lineup that didn’t take care of the ball as well or couldn’t make the key plays as Nagbe and Zelarayan.

But the two midfielders have now been back for four games each and both started each of the last two games. Although the Black & Gold won last Sunday against the first-place Philadelphia Union, it wasn’t exactly that controlled performance that Columbus fans got used to. In fact, it’s safe to say that the Crew got outplayed in each of the last two matches, despite Nagbe and Zelarayan’s return.

It’s fair to point out that both of these players are still finding their rhythm and rebuilding chemistry with their teammates after missing multiple games. But the Black & Gold are running out of time for that to happen with the postseason looming. If Nagbe and Zelarayan can’t have the influence expected in the next game against Atlanta United on Sunday, this costly midfield duo may not be able to help this team get to where it hoped earlier in the year.

The road is running out on the Crew

As you’ve likely heard, the Black & Gold are the second team in MLS history to make the playoffs without winning a single game on the road. Now it should be pointed out that there are fewer games this year than in a normal MLS season and Columbus did win games in Orlando at the MLS is Back Tournament, but the numbers will show what the numbers will show.

What’s concerning about this is two-fold. First, the performances on the road have been disappointing. Too often the Crew is going down due to early goals because of mistakes the team makes and has to either dig its way out to earn a tie or lose the game. Also, home-road splits when it comes to performances are alarming. This is a different team at home and there’s no good reason for it based on Columbus’ plays.

While the Black & Gold’s regular season road slate is over, it’s now more likely than not that the Crew will need to win a road game in the postseason. Columbus can still secure a first-round home game in the MLS Cup playoffs, but the winner of that series will almost certainly travel to face the No. 1 seed in the conference semifinals and beyond.

There is almost no way for the Black & Gold to avoid a road game in the playoffs unless things really break for the team. This could mean an earlier than expected postseason exit after the way this team played away from MAPFRE Stadium in the regular season.