A 4-0 blowout win over Hell Is Real rival FC Cincinnati and a 2-0 win against the New York Red Bulls not only gave Columbus Crew SC its first six points of the MLS is Back Tournament in the middle of July, but also generated buzz as a team on the rise. Gyasi Zardes gained praise for his goal-scoring prowess, Lucas Zelarayan for his SportsCenter-worthy free kick goal, and the Black & Gold’s defensive shutouts. This momentum continued into the third and final group stage game against an underperforming Atlanta United squad.
However, the halftime adjustments made by Atlanta’s now-former head coach Frank de Boer revealed that more organized marking, movement and physical defending frustrated the Crew following its previous ease of success during its first two matches that saw FC Cincinnati and New York Red Bulls give Columbus quite a bit of space to move, pass and shoot at its leisure.
From the start of the second half against United, the Black & Gold experienced a barrage of scoring chances – particularly at the beginning and end of the half – by a determined team. The Five Stripes were physical, focused and found spaces within the Crew’s final third for shots on goal. And while winger Luis Diaz provided a counter burst of speed and offensive relief along the right flank for Columbus, the second half was otherwise dominated by Atlanta’s increased and sustained pressure on the ball.
The Crew was able to hold onto its 1-0 lead for the win, which was the good news. But Atlanta played with more intensity at a distinguishably higher gear, which revealed (or re-revealed) cracks in Columbus’ defensive foundation that were prevalent at times throughout last season.
A few defensive errors during the second half against Atlanta included fullback Harrison Afful being caught out of position inside the 18-yard box three minutes into the second half. Darlington Nagbe basically stopped pursuing an onrushing Pity Martinez who delivered an uncontested shot just above the penalty box that could have led to an equalizing goal and a momentum shift.
In the 90th minute, Anton Walkes was wide open to receive the ball off of a free kick at the edge of the Crew’s six-yard-box for an uncontested shot that was saved by goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell. In the 92nd minute, Afful and Diaz let Manuel Castro dribble right by them for a shot inside the 18-yard box. In the 94th minute, Walkes was waiting and was (again) wide open about six to seven yards from the penalty spot for an uncontested volley on goal from a corner kick as Diaz stood and watched from the top of the box.
While it’s important to point out that many of these chances came against tired legs in the third game in 11 days after four months of no games, these familiar defensive warning signs involving lack of communication, positioning and marking against an Atlanta squad with organized pressure on and off the ball defensively coupled with quick ball movement offensively translated into a critical early goal in the next game for Minnesota United.
In the knockout round, Minnesota was well-positioned defensively, intercepting a lot of passes by the Crew. The team’s tactically sound strategy gave limited quality playmaking oxygen to Columbus. Despite statistical advantages for the Crew, it was United that controlled the game in the most critical ways. And it was less than 20 minutes into the game that Minnesota — with a little bit of luck — exposed the Black & Gold’s defensive weaknesses shown against Atlanta regarding poor positioning and marking.
An 18th minute Minnesota corner kick was headed from the back post to the near post by Robin Lod, which was pin-balled right back across by Zardes. The ball was met with a soft flick of the head by Jose Aja to a waiting Lod, who converted a wide-open volley around the six-yard box with center back Aboubacar Keita out of position and midfielder Artur uncertain of whether to intervene while standing closely behind the eventual goal-scorer.
The first five halves of the MLS is Back Tournament was a sharp contrast to the last three halves for Columbus. The common denominator for Atlanta (second half) and Minnesota was more physical, organized pressure on both sides of the ball that was practically absent during the Black & Gold’s first two games in which Columbus scored six goals and conceded zero goals.
Ultimately, the MLS is Back Tournament showed glimpses of a new Black & Gold squad that has added some exciting dynamism from its new playmaker, Lucas Zelarayan. However, the tournament also revealed glimpses of the old Black & Gold squad from 2019 that, at times, struggled with communication, positioning and marking defensively as well as opponents limiting the effectiveness of Columbus offensively because of its insistence on using wingbacks to supplant outside midfielders by crossing from the sideline into a crowded 18-yard box.
The big question for the Crew moving forward is whether the systematic, increased pressure from Atlanta and Minnesota during this summer tournament will result in the Black & Gold remaining methodically predictable or instead creatively unpredictable? The answers, we hope, will come when the sample size increases and the regular season continues later this month.