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What We Learned: Crew vs. Toronto FC

The lessons taken away from a disappointing loss.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Toronto FC David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

In just the second multiple-goal deficit of the season, Columbus Crew SC lost the Trillium Cup to Toronto FC 3-1 on Sunday night. In the first half, a 40-minute TFC own-goal off a Pedro Santos cross put the Crew up going into the half. But two entirely different teams came out of the locker room for the second half.

Toronto played with energy and possession in the second half, two things that the Crew did not. Three goals scored in 30 minutes was all the home side needed While late substitutions tried to give Columbus live, the team was unable to get come away with anything for its effort. The old adage is that you learn much more from a loss than a win. Let’s see what did we learn from this loss.

You need the ball to score

If this article was titled “What did we already know, but was strongly reinforced in this game” then this would be an ode to Darlington Nagbe. His presence was missed on the pitch on Sunday. That has been a recurring theme during his injury, but against a stronger attack than the Crew has faced this year, it was even more evident.

Nagbe’s cool presence under pressure is key to the Crew’s possession-based attack. Without someone to help maintain possession of the ball under duress, the Black & Gold struggled to create consistent attacking chances. Plenty of teams have won soccer games without winning the possession battle, but this Crew team was not one of them because that is not how the team is built to play. It may sound redundant, but a possession-based team is not going to win many games without maintaining possession.

Columbus needs to build up attack with several passes that put the opposing defense out of position and allow the playmakers to get into dangerous areas and finish crosses and long balls. The Black & Gold were able to create some relatively dangerous opportunities in the first half, one of them resulting in the own goal, but came out slow in the second half and did not hold onto the ball. Toronto out possessed Columbus 56 percent to 44 percent, but that deficit was far greater in the second half.

The stats continue to tell the tale in regards to the quality shot rate. While both teams were able to get 10 shots on goal, only three were quality scoring opportunities for the Crew. By comparison, Toronto had six quality opportunities and was able to convert three of them. Columbus was unable to build up a consistent attack to create those quality opportunities and was unable to keep up with TFC’s attack.

Defense caught off guard

Possession did not just affect the Crew’s offensive effort. The otherwise stout defense suffered due to a lack of possession. The Crew attempted to play up and build attack, only to lose the ball and the back four struggled to get back in time to absorb Toronto’s attack.

In Columbus’ draw against Chicago, a similar problem plagued the back four of the Black & Gold to similar dismay. Here is where a lack of possession can affect the other side of the attack. Toronto was not made to fall back as often and was able to keep bodies on the attacking side of the field more often, creating a quicker offensive buildup. With the back four scrambling to recover, and not as much support from the defensive midfielders, TFC caught the Crew out of position several times and made the team pay.

Tired legs after a grueling three games in eight days undoubtedly played a part, but Columbus did itself no favor by allowing the Reds to dictate pace and possession throughout the game. An oftentimes lackluster attacking presence the last couple of games have relied heavily on strong defensive efforts to survive, and the defense ran out of gas.

Sebastian Berhalter remains a positive

It wasn’t all doom and gloom as the Crew lost the team’s chance at Trillium Cup glory. Much can and has been said about the loss of Nagbe and his recently obtained immediate replacement, Fatai Alashe, who was also out with an injury. The Crew’s depth at midfielder was tested as young standout Sebastian Berhalter got the start.

By all accounts, Berhalter apprised himself as well as can be. He was creative in passing and helped stave off the Toronto penetration for much of the first half. He does still lack the wisdom and experience that Nagbe brings to the lineup, but Berhalter was a more-than-adequate substitute, which bodes well for Columbus as the team looks to maintain momentum for another week or two before Nagbe is game ready.

This may have been the Black & Gold’s most disappointing effort in an otherwise brilliant season. The smaller sample size does increase the level of concern, but hopefully the Crew can rest legs, stay healthy and weather the storm until the team can get one of its most important playmakers back. This run of three games was always going to be challenging, but by getting six points, Columbus is still sitting atop the Eastern Conference and Supporters’ Shield race.