On Saturday night, following a 0-0 draw, one team walked off the field at Nippert Stadium happy with the result, while the other was disappointed with how the game ended. Unlike many games, where the home team expects to win and the visitors are content to get out of there with a point, this contest was the other way around.
“It’s difficult,” Columbus Crew SC head coach Caleb Porter said of playing FC Cincinnati. “And it’s a great way to get a draw, for sure. And we’re disappointed that we didn’t find at least one goal to win.”
After a 4-0 win against the team’s Ohio rivals in the MLS is Back Tournament in mid-July, the Crew was under no impression that Saturday’s meeting would be as easy. At that point, Cincinnati was playing its first game under the team’s new head coach, Jaap Stam, and was yet to establish its identity.
That change throughout the MLS is Back Tournament, as FC Cincy put its faith in Stam, a world-class central defender in his playing days, and bought in to playing tough defense and being a difficult team to break down. It isn’t a pretty way to play soccer, but it is effective, as Cincinnati went 2-1-1 and left Orlando after a shootout against the Portland Timbers prior to Saturday’s content.
The way Stam set up his team wasn’t a surprise to Porter or the Crew, but it did frustrate the Black & Gold. The team, which was being discussed as MLS’s best offense through the tournament, struggled to break down a Cincinnati side that sat deep in a low block and was content to let its Columbus rivals move the ball around the midfield but not create many dangerous opportunities.
“Obviously a really difficult game,” Porter said postgame. “I can’t remember playing in a game where a team played so deep and basically, especially at home, dropped off 35 yards from goal with a back five and a three line and a two line. We knew that was going to be the case. You never know how difficult it’s going to be until you’re actually in there and I think it’s a difficult thing to break down.”
This is not to say the Crew didn’t create enough chances to win the game. The team did.
In the 11th minute, Youness Mokhtar got free behind the FC Cincy defenders but sent his breakaway chip of onrushing goalkeeper Przemyslaw Tyton well wide. A minute later, Pedro Santos found the head of Gyasi Zardes at the top of the six-yard box but the forward’s attempt was right to Tyton.
If either of those early chances is finished, Cincinnati can no longer “park the bus” in front of the team’s goal and has to open up more. As it did against the Chicago Fire just four days earlier, a quick opening goal creates more space along the backline and allows the opponent to generate more chances.
The Black & Gold had another clear goal scoring opportunity early in the second half when Zardes raced into the penalty box with the ball, cut back and played a teasing cross across the face of the Cinnantti goal. Despite Lucas Zelarayan and Santos rushing into the box with an open goal in front of them, neither midfielder was able to make contact with the ball.
“We certainly can do better in terms of creating more,” Porter admitted, “but in that type of game, you’re never going to get 10 clear chances.”
It wasn’t just FC Cincy’s deep-lying defense that held Columbus scoreless, however. On top of not being ruthless enough when chances did come, the team wasn’t as sharp as expected, even though two key attacking options — Zelarayan and Mokhtar — returned to the lineup after multiple games out with injury.
In six outings this year, Zelarayan, the Crew’s record-signing this offseason, has three goals and two assists and was the talk of the MLS is Back group stage. Dealing with an ankle injury, Zelarayan didn’t play in either of the last two matches, but his inclusion in the starting 11 was supposed to mark the return of the Black & Gold’s creative spark offensively, something that was missed against the Fire and New York City FC.
Playing as an inverted winger, Mokhtar began to showcase his potential in Orlando after joining the Crew in the middle of last season. The Dutchman had two goals and one assist in his first five games of 2020 before suffering a leg injury at MLS is Back.
In their return, neither Zelarayan nor Mokhtar was sharp. Even with the two creative players back in the lineup, along with Santos, the Black & Gold lacked the quick, insightful passes to create more against a stout and compact defensive line.
“I do think also, a little bit of our lack of cohesion showed and it especially showed in the attack,” Porter said. “Because when you look at those little connections and the chemistry, it takes time to gain that chemistry, especially in the attack. And when you’re trying to break down a low block, 10 guys, 35 yards from goal, that collective chemistry is crucial.”
Porter isn’t worried, however. Despite being shut out in back-to-back games for the first time since last July, the head coach believes having all of his offensive weapons back and healthy for the first time since early in the tournament will lead to goals going forward as players re-establish their rhythm of playing together.
“When I say we need time, we just need time with the group that’s now healthy,” Porter said. “And now that we can kind of roll with a lineup, we don’t need to rotate. In the initial stage, in that first window we knew was the tightest window and we weren’t going to play everybody all six games. We had always planned to rotate the New York game because it was a tight window and then kind of roll with the same group for the most part from here on out. So it’s just getting guys healthy and now giving them time to kind of marinate together.”
The Crew will have its chance to get the offense going with a quick turnaround. The Philadelphia Union come to MAPFRE Stadium on Wednesday and bring a team that, like Columbus, enjoys playing open soccer that should create more opportunities for the Black & Gold.
Then it’s just about finishing those opportunities when they come.
“I don’t think we’re bad in the attack,” Porter said. “I think we’re executing overall the plan but the final third, we can still be more clinical when we get chances. We can be better when we have to operate in tight spaces to create chances. But our possession, our front half control specifically and, if you look at analytics, the amount of times that we’ve got in Zone 14 (closest to the goal) and the half-spaces, we’ve been executing really well. We just need to do a better job in the final detail.”