The Columbus Crew opened the 2021 season the way 2020 ended with offense and defense both clicking at a high level. The Black & Gold thrashed Real Estel 4-0 in Nicaragua in the first leg of the Round of 16 in the CONCACAF Champions League to begin the new campaign and all seemed right in the world.
But then the Crew struggled to score in Leg 2, getting just a 1-0 win against a side that different offer much resistance. In fairness, head coach Caleb Porter deployed a largely reserve lineup with eight changes from the first leg, including three players making their debut for the club, two of which had never played in a professional game before.
Back at nearly full strength, however, three days later in the Major League Soccer opener against the Philadelphia Union, the offense again struggled in a 0-0 draw with the Philadelphia Union. While Columbus put six shots on target and created enough chances to score a goal, the team left the game disappointed not to find the back of the net.
Some of that could be explained by the Union’s talented defense — Philadelphia was the only team that allowed fewer goals in MLS play in 2020 than the Crew — but also a lack of time to prepare. The Black & Gold’s preseason saw a number of pieces miss time due to injuries or national team call-ups and then the team jumped from Champions League play to league play rather quickly without the group having a lot of time to prepare for Philly.
“I think we just didn’t have enough reps and I think you saw that when we got in the final third,” Porter said after the draw. “The ideas, the clarity, the decision, but those things will come and we know we have it in us. But for sure we didn’t create enough.”
Following the first MLS game of 2021, Columbus had 10 days before Wednesday’s Champions League quarterfinal against CF Monterrey. After reviewing the film, Porter’s tune changed slightly.
“Against Philly, I still thought we had some good half chances,” he said on Tuesday. “You’re not going to get a ton of clear chances against Philly, the way they play, the way they defend. So you have to keep that in perspective.”
That time without a match also gave the Crew plenty of time to work to improve things from the first few matches. After two games of less than desirable offense, a good chunk of time was focused on getting the offense’s play caught up to that of the defense, which is yet to concede a goal in three matches.
“Obviously we had a pretty big window without a match, so it gave us an opportunity to get on the training ground and to not have to worry about recovery where we could dig into some things,” Porter said. “We dug in just a little bit to our build-up. There were times where we didn’t switch play enough. There were times where we weren’t patient, some spacing issues with the No. 6 and No. 8. Some of those little details we dug into, even just the final third, being clear in how we can open up teams and some of the ideas, some of the decisions, the precision. Even just the technical quality, working on that, we spent a lot of time.”
The offense will need to be at its best on Wednesday night against Monterrey. Playing against one of the best teams in Liga MX and a side that has won the competition on four occasions, this game will be one of the toughest for the Black & Gold all season.
Ideally, Columbus is able to find its offense and score multiple goals before traveling to Estadio BBVA in a week’s time, a place where Monterrey has only lost twice this year. Finding ways to score goals at home, something the team did with regularity last season, in the first leg will give the Crew a much better chance to advance to the semifinals.
“Our mindset is going to be to attack and to score,” Porter said. “But we have to be patient as well. It’s a 180-minute-plus game and we don’t want to be giving to get in a match. But yeah, can we risk a little bit more at times? Get numbers in the box a bit more? Some of that we looked at.
“Some of it also is being more patient; actually it’s the opposite. We over-crossed and so being patient. A couple more cycles when we keep the ball and move the opponent to disorganize them, to open up spaces.”
In order to have success in MLS play, the Crew will need to score goals to win games. But in a two-legged series like in the Champions League settled by aggregate goals, putting the ball in the net is even more important.
With time to prepare this past week and a half, the Black & Gold feel better that the offense will hit closer to what it did in the first game than it has in either of the past two.
“It doesn’t mean we’re going to go score four or five goals. Maybe, you never know,” Porter said. “But I think it’s important to score, you have to work on it. Obviously, even if you have an experienced team, you have to get those connections right.
“We can’t lose the defending. That’s going to be important in this game. But can we be a bit better in the attack? That’s what we’re looking for.”