The Columbus Crew won the 2020 MLS Cup not because of the team’s elite offense, but rather because the Black & Gold had one of the best defenses in the league. Head coach Caleb Porter admitted that the Crew isn’t likely to be one of the highest-scoring teams in the league any year, given the club’s mid-market stature and the money needed to have top-level finishers in MLS.
But that doesn’t mean Columbus shouldn’t be a productive offense in any given season and it’s largely the lack of offensive production that has the team sitting six points below the MLS Cup playoff line with six games remaining and putting any chance of defending the team’s second league title in jeopardy.
The basic statistics tell the simple story. In addition to having the league’s second-best defense, the Black & Gold scored 36 goals on 251 shots in 23 games played in 2020, eighth best in MLS. Through 28 games this season, the Crew has 32 goals scored on 308 shots, which ranks 23rd in the league.
Digging into the analytics tells an even deeper story of Columbus’ offensive struggles this year. The Black & Gold well outperformed their expected goals (xG) of 29.13 last season on their way to a championship. While the team has also outperformed its xG this year (28.61) in 2021, the difference has not been as drastic. The Crew’s xG per game this year so far is 1.02 as opposed to 1.27 in 2020.
The issue, which is apparent if you watched both the 2020 and 2021 Columbus sides, comes from chance creation. The Black & Gold are last in MLS with 18 assists this season, six fewer than the next-closest team, FC Cincinnati. The team is not creating good chances to score and therefore have seen the numbers, and the results, drop off because of that.
“There’s not one answer to that. It depends on the game,” head coach Caleb Porter said when asked about the team’s struggle to create chances. “It depends on who was healthy at that time. It depends on what the opponent was doing, what we were doing. The general analytics are the general analytics and those are the facts, at the end of the day and over the course of the season. But it just depends on the game.”
Porter is, of course, correct. Every game is different. But in too many games this year, regardless of the opponent, the Crew has failed to generate enough good opportunities to score goals.
While instincts may say to look at the No. 10 for chance creation, or lack thereof, that’s not exactly the case for Columbus. Lucas Zelarayan, while one of the best attacking players in MLS, doesn’t play the position the way former Black & Gold attacking midfielders did. Zelaryan has just eight assists — compared to 13 goals — in his two seasons with the Crew and his expected assists per 90 minutes this year sits at 0.19.
While he is a major catalyst for Columbus’ attack, and remains second on the team in goals scored, Zelaryan is not necessarily going to create for others. In fact, he has gotten himself in trouble of late, looking to do too much on his own rather than finding his teammates.
“I think the entire team at times, when it’s not coming easy and the chances and goals aren’t flowing, the tendency for everyone is to complicate it and over-dribble and try and play in an individual way,” Porter on Friday. “That was a big message this week was can the team move the ball as a team, combine as a team, support each other. The solution in picking a lock on the attacking end is in team play, it’s in combination play. It’s not in individual play.
“Lucas is a player that individually can unbalance an opponent and so we want to give him the freedom at the right moments to do that. He’s one of the few players on the team that has that license. But just in general, the entire team is much better when we move the ball as a team and we play quick and we support each other and we have ideas playing in twos and threes and fours versus ideas individually.”
Zelarayan is not the problem, or not entirely, but it’s rather the lack of options around him. As Crew fans know all too well, this team has dealt with a rash of injuries throughout the season. While this has been discussed ad nauseum, the players who have missed time have contributed to a lack of chance creation that was present for Columbus in 2020.
Because of the way the Black & Gold play, many chances come from the wide areas. Yet injuries to players in those positions have led to non-first-choice selections out wide.
“We get a lot of our chances created through our outside backs and there were many games where we didn’t have outside backs who were attacking,” Porter explained. “And with a couple of profiles of the guys we’ve played there, they’re not going to bring quite as much as the guys that were injured during that. But we create a lot of chances through our outside backs and there were many games where we didn’t have chance creation coming through those players.”
When healthy, Milton Valenzuela and Harrison Afful are the first-choice outside backs, both players that look to push forward and serve in crosses. Valenzuela has played just eight games this year, well below the 19 of a season ago, and has no assists.
Afful, while suiting up in 22 matches, is now 35 years old and hasn’t delivered consistent production down the right side of the field as he once did. The Crew attempted to address that with the addition of Steven Moreira this summer, but the Frenchman only recently arrived and was not fit before playing the last two matches.
Neither Waylon Francis, 22 games played, or Saad Abdul-Salaam, 18 matches, provide the same attacking firepower.
Additionally, it has been a spinning wheel of players on the wings for Columbus. Ideally, Porter would like a pocket winger to tuck inside and help create from there, along with a stretch winger who can get behind defenses to provide width and service to forward Gyasi Zardes.
Injuries to Kevin Molino, Luis Diaz and Derrick Etienne has meant a lack of consistency in a key chance creation position for the Black & Gold.
“A lot of our chance creation comes through the wingers,” Porter said. “Whether that’s in pockets to spring the outside backs, in pockets to shoot, getting on the back post with a cross, playing final balls from those positions central and narrow. And when you look at just in general the production from the wingers, again going back to just the black and white, call a spade a spade, not pointing fingers, we have not gotten enough goals and assists out of our wingers this year.”
While Santos, two goals and three assists, has helped in the chance creation department in a big way in the past, he is in the 46th percentile in shot creating actions from the run of play in MLS this year compared to other MLS attacking midfielders. Etienne, Diaz and Alexandru Matan all rank in the bottom 30th percentile in the same department.
And while health certainly plays a part, the best players consistently playing and playing together, it is also clear that teams have figured out the Crew’s attack and some players just aren’t playing up to the level expected of them.
“It’s all intertwined and connected and when you have it working out and rolling the right way, we’re creating on the right, we’re creating on the left, we’re creating through our outside backs, we’re creating through each winger in different ways, we’re creating throughout No. 9 and our No. 10. We just haven’t consistently gotten that going enough,” Porter admitted.
With the team as healthy as it’s been all season, players have a chance over the next three weeks to show what they can do in helping to generate more chances. Whether Columbus makes the playoffs or not, the lack of goals stemming from an inability to create quality chances is something that must be addressed. It’s just a matter of who returns and where additions need to be made for next season.
Because while this team doesn’t need to be elite offensively in MLS, it needs to be better than it has been this year.
“I think when you’re looking at why we haven’t created as many chances, the answers are in the right and left side of our team, wingers and outside backs,” Porter said. “And that shows up in every analytic you want to look for. So now moving into the last six games, can we improve those areas a little bit the best we can and then obviously the offseason we need to look at how we can create more because we can’t just rely on Lucas. And we’re certainly not going to rely on (Gyasi) if we’re not getting him in a position to score as much as we need to.”