The MLS is Back Tournament was unquestionably a good one for Columbus Crew SC. Even though the Black & Gold exited the competition prematurely at the Round of 16, it did so with an undefeated record of three wins and one tie and just one goal conceded.
As expected after such a long break, not everything was perfect and if the days spent in Central Florida didn’t reward the Crew with a trophy, they highlighted at least three minor points of concern that should be examined as the regular season resumes, reportedly by the end of August.
“We go home, we rest up, we reset and we throw everything on the season,” head coach Caleb Porter said during the press conference following the team’s elimination last Tuesday. “It’s the first time we tasted any disappointment in the season and it’s good for the group to have a little taste of it and feel we have to improve. We’re just scratching the surface of what this team we can be.”
To get closer to its full potential and retain the top spot at the Eastern Conference, the Crew needs to address at least these three areas:
Defending set pieces
It’s easy to point out this one as the only goal the Crew conceded in more than 360 minutes of play in Orlando came from a corner kick. Several positioning and execution mistakes were made in that play, starting with Aboubacar Keita losing Minnesota United’s Robin Lod in the penalty box, continuing with Gyasi Zardes clearing the ball to a dangerous spot and ending with Artur failing to close down on Lod before he fired the shot that ended inside goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell’s net.
“We knew that was going to be an area where they’re good at, where they’d look to score on and we got beat in a moment there,” Porter reacted about the goal. “We’ve been very good on defensive set pieces but on that moment we got kind of stoned.”
One goal is certainly not enough to define a pattern, but despite Porter’s positive words, set pieces have bothered the Crew earlier in the tournament as well. Against Atlanta United, in the final group stage match, Tarbell made quite a few important saves and at least two of the most difficult ones came after set pieces that ended on Anton Walkes’ feet – the first after a foul and the second following a set piece.
The positive part of this problem is that there is an easy fix without any major changes needed. Considering it’s still the start of the season – remember, the team has played only six matches so far, with a huge break between the first two and the last four – and that there was more rotation than normal at the MLS is Back Tournament due to the compressed schedule, chemistry and communication issues were expected.
The Crew has a group of capable defenders and as they get more playing time together and the lineups switch less frequently, these two factors will no longer be a problem and this issue should be in the rearview mirror.
Creating chances against defensive opponents
The match against Minnesota was frustrating because the Crew trailed for most of it and didn’t look to be in position to tie the game the majority of the time. The team controlled possession pretty well and connected passes at a high rate, but it struggled to create in the final third.
Even the penalty kick that generated Zardes’ equalizer happened more due to a lapse in concentration by defender Jose Aja, who mistimed a tackle and hit Black & Gold winger Derrick Etienne Jr. when he had his back to the goal and wasn’t in a dangerous spot, than as a foul that aimed to stop a clear scoring situation.
“This group can keep the ball, we work hard, we can break teams down,” Porter reflected. “We still need to be better in that regard, especially against a balanced team. The fun part is I think we controlled this game more than any others. We didn’t score as many goals on the end of it, but we had a lot of control in this match. It’s difficult to break down 10 guys 30 yards from goal. It’s the toughest thing to do in our game.”
Playing against well-organized and defensive teams is indeed tough at times, but it’s a reality the Crew will repeatedly face going forward in the season, especially if it continues playing the ball-dominant style of soccer it has been.
The Black & Gold have excellent playmakers in midfielders Lucas Zelarayan and Darlington Nagbe, talented wingers in Pedro Santos and Youness Mokhtar and an offensive-minded fullback in Harrison Afful, so the next step is to make turn this group of attacking players into one that can break down tight defenses and that involves being more creative, flexible and sharper in the final third of the field.
Figuring out the dilemma with the wingers
The Crew has four high-level wingers on its roster, players who offer great versatility up front in Santos, Mokhtar, Luis Diaz and Etienne. It’s fair to say that at least three of these guys would be starters for most teams in the league. However, it’s not very clear what the best combination among them is.
Santos is arguably the most highly-regarded of the four due to his contributions to the team over the years, his ability to finish from long range and to draw fouls and his defensive work rate. He publicly stated his preference for playing on the right side, where he can cut inside to finish with his left foot or combine with Zelarayan or Zardes.
As Porter likes to have one winger, preferably a pacey one, playing closer to the sideline and the other drifting inside to play in the pocket, that second role is typically taken by the Portuguese. That leaves the wider job for whoever plays on the left flank, but Mokhtar and Diaz, in theory the most likely options, are not exactly comfortable in that position.
The Dutchman has a playing style that’s more similar to Santos. He likes to play more centrally as it showed in his great performance against FC Cincinnati – when the Portuguese winger was not on the field. To have the two play at the same time means the team would have more players clogging the central area of the field and that the fullbacks would be isolated out wide.
Diaz, on the other hand, does like to play wider and is quick, but he produces at a brutally lower rate when moved out of his preferred right side. The Costa Rican struggles when he needs to use his left foot and because of that, he becomes more predictable and limited on the left and doesn’t stretch the field as much as Porter would want.
In theory, the best formation for Santos would have him and Etienne, who is more suited on the left, but that would leave Mokhtar and Diaz (apparently the second and third best wingers in the roster, in any order) on the bench.
Here, Porter will need to make a decision. He’ll either have the most talented tandem of wingers on the field even if that means one of them will be out of position or will look for the better combination at the cost of perhaps having a more skilled playing coming off the bench.