The road woes from 2020 have overlapped to start 2021 with the Columbus Crew taking its first loss of the season in Orlando against Toronto FC. The came in the form of a 2-0 defeat with U.S. Men’s National Team veterans Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore scoring the goals for TFC off of two set piece chances. The loss leaves the Black & Gold at five points after four matches but still with a game in hand on the majority of the league.
Columbus had moments, especially in the first 25 minutes of the second half, where the team looked fluid in possession and going forward. Once again, the clinical finish in the final third was not there and, after four games in MLS, not one Crew player has scored a goal in open play.
Here is what we learned in the Crew’s third straight Trillium Cup loss.
Set piece defending must improve
Set pieces can change whether a game ends in a win or loss. We have seen it time and time again. Lucas Zelarayan’s quality on a free kick was the difference-maker in the Crew’s lone win thus far in the 2021 MLS season. Set pieces were also the only difference-maker in Columbus’ lone loss of the 2021 season.
The first goal the Crew conceded came from a Toronto corner kick in the 13th minute. The ball pinballed and Black & Gold defenders ran into each other trying to clear the ball. Winger Luis Diaz and defender Vito Wormgoor were able to get a head on the ball but unable to get it out of the penalty box. The ball twice fell to Bradley who finally got a clean shot off as three Crew players surrounding the ball just watched and didn’t attempt to go after it.
It was just a wacky sequence where one player needed to rise to the occasion and get a touch to get the ball out of the box.
The second goal was a simple training ground free kick play from Toronto, a similar play the Crew executes in the draw with Monterrey where Zelarayan sent it far post to Josh Williams, who heads it across goal for Bradley Wright-Phillips. That goal got disallowed. Toronto’s worked to perfection and counted as Bradley played a free kick to the far post to Omar Gonzalez, who out-muscled center back Aboubacar Keita. Gonzalez headed the ball across to the rushing Altidore who didn’t have a man in front him and just tapped it home.
Being able to defend set pieces can change a game. In the case of the Crew, better practice at set piece defending probably sees the team walking out of Orlando with a 0-0 draw.
Luis Diaz can unleash the offense
Despite the forced rotation of the lineup from head coach Caleb Porter because of all the games in close succession, a few players are consistently starting. One of those is Luis Diaz, who is consistently starting on the right wing. The Costa Rican started all four CONCACAF Champions League games and three MLS contests and for a good reason.
Despite no goals scored, Diaz offers the offense a massive advantage going forward and that is speed to make space. In a lot of moments this year, and again in the Toronto match, Diaz ran into open space on the right side with his quick speed and run timing able to get by the defense. Wednesday night, he did just that, even having a one-on-one with Toronto goalkeeper Alex Bono.
Outside of that play, Diaz had numerous chances to cross the into the box or shoot from his side. This is a constant in any game he plays but, similar to his teammates to start the season, the final shot or pass in the box is not there. No one makes more open space going forward on the Crew than Diaz and if he begins to show more composure crossing and in front of goal, this offense could be scary with all the pieces working together.
The schedule congestion is taking its toll
The match in Orlando was the Black & Gold’s fifth game in a 15-day period and it is clear this is taking its toll on the players' health and execution. For the first time this season, Porter wasn’t able to field a full bench, with just six players ready to substitute. The subs included a goalkeeper, three defenders, and two attackers. No midfielders were on the bench with Artur getting rest after starting plenty of late and new loan signing Liam Fraser unable to play against his parent club.
Fans didn’t see left back Milton Valenzuela, center back Josh Williams or winger Pedro Santos due to injuries, adding to the list of players still out such as midfielders Perry Kitchen, Aidan Morris and Kevin Molino and right back Marlon Hairston. Porter said this would be the toughest stretch of the season and he was correct. The injuries have just increased over the weeks and it’s bad mixture to have injured players while having little to no time to train.
Leading up to this Toronto match, the Crew had a recovery day on Sunday after the 3-1 win against D.C. United, light training on Monday and Tuesday and traveled on Wednesday to Orlando. The turnaround has been rapid for the coaching staff and players to be able to prepare for opponents, recover, train and travel. It’s taking its toll with the sixth game in 19 days taking place on Sunday at the New England Revolution.
After the game with Revs, the Crew will have a full week to prepare for New York City FC on May 22 and Toronto again on May 29 before a nearly three-week break because of international matches. While the congestion is taking its toll, Columbus still just has just one loss in the first four league games. The final stretch is here and the team has to make sure to come out of Foxborough with at least a point.