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What We Learned: Crew vs. New York City FC

They say you can learn a lot from a loss...

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at New York City FC Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

On Monday night Columbus Crew SC suffered its first loss of the 2020 Major League Soccer regular season to Eastern Conference foes New York City FC, 1-0. With several key contributors missing, including club-record signing Lucas Zelarayan, goalkeeper Eloy Room, center back Vito Wormgoor and winger Youness Mokhtar, the Crew was still competitive and felt the group was in a position to take some points from the match. Thus, all is not lost for Columbus in 2020.

Here are the biggest takeaways from Monday night’s defeat.

Get used to the physicality

NYCFC certainly didn’t back away from this matchup against the Crew, as was evidenced by the team’s physical play, especially in the first half. With a total of 19 fouls in the match, it’s no secret that part of the game plan for the Pigeons was to disrupt Columbus’ rhythm and the flow of the game, especially when the Crew was in possession.

Unfortunately for the Black & Gold, it worked, as there was little offensive flow established in the match, which led to the first time Columbus went without a goal in 2020. It is likely that other teams around the league will take note of the effect that this physicality had on the Crew and some teams may choose to employ the same type of tactics to disrupt the game. It is particularly likely that struggling teams with their “backs to the wall,” as City was on Monday, will try and do everything they can to disrupt the Crew’s free-flowing attack, especially given the uncertainty around the next portion of the MLS season.

Lucas Zelarayan is important

This might seem a bit obvious, but the club’s record signing is going to be a key piece for the attacking success of the Black & Gold moving forward. It seems a bit harsh to point this out after a goalless loss, but keep in mind the Crew’s offensive performance against the Chicago Fire this past Thursday. Despite the three goals scored, one could argue that Columbus struggled to create chances in that match as well. If not for a quick restart leading to Derrick Etienne Jr.’s first goal in a Crew uniform, a Darlington Nagbe wonder strike and a well-worked goal after the game was decided, the Crew could have gone goalless against the Fire as well.

In his post-match press conference, head coach Caleb Porter referenced the struggles that Columbus had playing balls in between the defensive lines and breaking down opposing defenses without a player like Zelarayan in the midfield. The Black & Gold hope to have Zelarayan back sooner rather than later, and when he does return, look out for a bit more of a dynamic attack from Columbus.

The Crew can defend

The Black & Gold can flat out defend. In the team’s seven league matches up to this point, the Crew has given up only two goals, which is tied for the best in league history. That stat alone is impressive in and of itself. If you factor in that the two goals Columbus has conceded were a penalty kick converted by the Seattle Sounders (which was retaken after an original save by Room) and a breakaway off of a bad giveaway in possession by Aboubacar Keita, and the Crew may have one of the best defense in league history. This doesn’t mean that the Black & Gold doesn’t concede chances and it does not mean they will not concede goals throughout the rest of 2020, but it does mean that the Crew will likely be competitive in every game the team plays.

The future is bright

While Monday night was disappointing for Columbus, one bright spot was the performance of Homegrown Sebastian Berhalter. Berhalter, the son of former Crew boss and current U.S. Men’s National Team coach Gregg Berhalter, has put in several good performances in his first year as a professional, including Monday night. Berhalter led the Crew midfield in completed passes and led the team in completed passes in the NYCFC half. Furthermore, Berhalter won 80 percent of the “duels” (duels can be defined as “a 50/50 challenge between two members of opposing sides”) he was involved in and seemed to respond very well to the physicality of the game.

While it is unlikely that he will become a week in and week out starter for the Black & Gold in the near future, it will no doubt serve him well to sit behind potential Most Valuable Player candidate Darlington Nagbe and Crew veteran Artur for the time being. In addition to this, he will have plenty of time to learn the intricacies of Porter’s playing system and continue to develop into an excellent midfielder for the Black & Gold.