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What we learned: Crew at Seattle Sounders

Our biggest takeaways from the Black & Gold’s draw in Seattle.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Seattle Sounders FC Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday night saw Columbus Crew SC earned a hard-fought road point in a 1-1 draw against the defending MLS Cup champions, Seattle Sounders. Gyasi Zardes opened the scoring for Columbus in the 33rd minute, only to be leveled late by a 79th-minute retake of a penalty originally saved by Black & Gold goalkeeper Eloy Room. Given the travel concerns, injuries before and during the game and the antics of Video Assistant Review, what can we take away from this game?

No trouble in transition

The Crew is really good in transition, like really good. Top of the Eastern Conference good. Any team that leaves space in transition for the likes of Zardes, Luis Diaz, Pedro Santos, Lucas Zelarayan and company to exploit will be punished. Several times against Seattle, the Crew was able to exploit dangerous spaces in transition. While oftentimes lacking the final pass, the Black & Gold will only continue to become more precise in transition. And with the combination of speed and quality Columbus has, especially in their attacking cohorts, one can safely assume that the Crew will score a lot of goals in transition this year.

Perhaps more impressive than the offensive transition, the Black & Gold’s defensive transition has been very good early on this year. Time and time again the Crew was able to effectively counter-press Seattle (and New York City FC last week) and win the ball back quickly in the attacking half, which is a very effective way of continuously putting pressure on opponents. It’s a good sign to see how effective the Crew can be in counter-pressing situations, especially against the upper half of the league.

The press is on

The Crew has set up in a stifling defensive shape early on this year and it looks poised to be difficult to break down. Thus far, Columbus has set up defensively, mainly in a 4-4-2 scheme. The organization defensively has been a sight to behold so far this year. The Crew seems well suited to press in this 4-4-2 scheme with the hard-working tandem of Zardes and Zelarayan spearheading the pressure on the opposition’s central defenders and the mobile duo of Artur and Darlington Nagbe behind them, taking away the opposition’s midfield options. Thus forcing the opposition to either play the ball wide to their outside backs with the likes of Diaz, Santos, Derrick Etienne and Youness Mokhtar waiting. These four all feature tremendous closing speed, which will no doubt strike fear into opposing outside backs heart. The other option that the opposition can use, and the Crew will allow, is a long direct ball into the strikers. With the likes of Jonathan Mensah and Aboubacar Keita (and Vito Wormgoor when healthy) patrolling the backline, the Black & Gold and head coach Caleb Porter seem just fine with letting those two challenge for long balls.

Seattle did have some success later on in the game with their central striker dropping into the midfield to get on the ball and great a numerical advantage. It will be interesting to see if/how Columbus and the coaching staff adjust the press and organization of the team throughout the year to combat this as they will likely see it many times before the year is over.

Outside backs will have a huge role

If you have Harrison Afful, Milton Valenzuela or even Chris Cadden on your MLS fantasy team, you’re in luck. The outside backs in Columbus will play a huge role in the team’s success this year. Afful and Valenzuela terrorized the Sounders on Saturday night, repeatedly getting the ball in dangerous areas and making incisive passes or crosses, as evidenced by Afful’s involvement on the lone goal of the game. Porter stated at half time that the Crew was going to continue to look to create 1 v. 1 situations in wide areas to create opportunities. This has been a feature for the Black & Gold, both in the preseason and last Sunday at MAPFRE Stadium and will continue throughout the rest of the year. Given Valenzuela and Afful’s motors, their involvement up the field perfectly suits the Crew and with solid cover from Mensah and Wormgoor on the backline, and Artur and Nagbe in transition, the team can attack worry free up and down the flanks all year long.

Quality over quantity

There’s no doubt that the Crew didn’t have a ton of shots on Saturday night. However, I don’t think it is of big concern to the coaching staff or players in the locker room. Columbus seems to be looking, very intentionally, to create high-quality chances, instead of just a large number. While it may not look good on the stat sheet, it will likely bode well for the Crew’s 2020 campaign.

Take for example, the Zardes goal that gave the Black & Gold the lead on Saturday night. A simple tap in for Zardes was the result of a beautiful build-up play from Zelarayan and Artur, as well as an exquisite ball from Diaz. It seems clear that the Crew is specifically trying to create and exploit space in behind the oppositions defense. When Columbus builds out of the back, the team does so in order to draw the opposition higher up the field to create the space needed to attack this way.

Even when they play more direct, the Crew tends to draw the defense to one side and play a long, diagonal ball over the top into the space created. They also attempt to do this in the final third, as exemplified by the Zardes goal Saturday night. Both Zelarayan and Arthur make penetrating runs to draw the defense out of position and then it’s quickly swung to Diaz and played into the vacated space for Zardes to finish off.

It’s clear that Porter and company want the final pass coming from wide areas quite often, as exemplified from their league-leading cross tally in Week 1 and a heavy emphasis in this area again on Saturday night. Frankly, this best suits Zardes (and Fanendo Adi) in front of goal and will help utilize the speed and crossing ability of Diaz, Santos, Valenzuela and company. It remains to be seen if the Crew will be able to generate enough offense in different areas to keep teams from keying in on stopping this, but if they do, the Black & Gold will be among the best in the East.