Monday night’s 1-0 loss to New York City FC was a setback for Columbus Crew SC, there’s no doubt about that. Entering the game as one of only two teams — the other being Eastern Conference rivals Toronto FC — yet to suffer defeat, and playing a team that had just one win on the season, the Crew expected to walk out of Red Bull Arena, where NYCFC is playing its home games this year, with at least a point.
Nearly 60 minutes into the match, the Black & Gold were in a good position to do that. Despite early fouls by the home side that disrupted the offensive rhythm, City had created little and didn’t look dangerous to penetrate a Columbus defense that was yet to allow a goal from the run of play in 2020.
“That’s what you want,” head coach Caleb Porter said of the situation in the middle of the second half. “You want to be in that position when you’re around the 60th minute and they looked like they were never going to really score. They weren’t threatening us.”
Porter made changes to be more offensive in the hopes of finding a winning goal on the road. Trusting his stout backline to hold down the fort, Porter brought on Emmanuel Boateng to replace Derrick Etienne Jr. on the left wing — fresh speed on the field — and Artur for Luis Diaz, moving Pedro Santos to his more comfortable right winger spot and pushing Darlington Nagbe to the No. 10 role that worked so well just four days before.
These tactical adjustments never got the chance to take hold. Within seconds of the substitutions being announced to no one in particular in the empty Red Bull Arena, the Crew was down 1-0, trailing for the first time in the regular season.
And just like the 58 minutes leading up to the finish by Alexander Ring, New York City didn’t break down Columbus’ defense. The Cityzens were instead the benefactor of a rare mistake by the Black & Gold’s backline.
Second-year Homegrown defender Aboubacar Keita, who earlier in the match got away with a careless pass out of the back, played a routine ball intended for fellow center back Jonathan Mensah. Unfortunately, Keita didn’t listen, hit it hard enough, recognize the danger, possibly all of the above, and the ball was intercepted by City forward Heber who neatly passed to Ring for the easy finish.
“From my position, I actually pointed to the goalkeeper because we worked on it,” Jonathan said of the play postgame. “But I think he didn’t even look at the player close to me before he passed that ball.”
In the blink of an eye, the Crew was down 1-0 facing a comeback on the road, before either substitute was able to get involved in the match.
And despite seeing the ball hit the back of the net twice in the final 30 minutes — both plays were whistled for offside — the Black & Gold were not able to create enough to overcome only the second goal conceded this year.
“That was a big moment in the match because, if we get the first goal or if it stays 0-0, I’m feeling good about where things are at,” Porter said. “I knew they were desperate and I just thought it was really set up nicely for us. We made a little bit of a push with two subs and we never got a chance to find that goal and we were down even before they were in the game.
“Goals change games, I always say it, and I thought it just gave them life. It lifted them. It was what they needed just to kind of gain confidence. And obviously for us, it was a bit of a back-breaker.”
For the Crew, there was disappointment because the team felt it deserved more out of the contest. For Keita, playing in just his 14th career MLS game, it was a costly mistake but one he will need to learn from.
“We’ve got to have his back and we hope that those mistakes don’t happen again,” veteran Hector Jimenez said of Keita. “He’s still young in his career, we’ve just got to pick him up. The good thing is we have a lot more games coming up soon so hopefully he can bounce back from it.”
“I’m sure he’s going to learn, he’s going to let it go and improve upon that,” Jonathan agreed. “Because this cannot happen again because we are a team that keeps improving. These are the type of mistakes that we do once in a while but at the end of the day, we need to let it go, improve and step into the next game and make it better.”
For a team like the Crew that wants to have the ball and build from the back, mistakes are going to happen from time to time, especially from young players who don’t have as much experience on the ball. In Keita’s case, he just has to recognize the situation and play a firmer pass to Jonathan so Heber can’t intercept. Either that or look up and see his captain telling him to play the ball back to the goalkeeper.
Fortunately for the Black & Gold, there haven’t been too many mistakes like this one and Columbus is able to use this as a teaching moment to continue to build and get better. And next time Keita is in this situation, he will know to make the right play.
“You never want to give up goals like that. You don’t accept mistakes like that, but also they happen,” Porter said. “It hurts because obviously it cost us the game but when you play young players, you know some of those things are going to happen and you know it’s a process and you know they’re going to make mistakes and they need to learn from them and not let it happen again.”