Caleb Porter warned his team and the fans that this season would not be easy. Despite the Columbus Crew winning the 2020 MLS Cup and having what was widely considered to be a successful offseason, the Crew head coach made it known before the year began that there would be ups and downs.
On Sunday on national television, the Black & Gold suffered a 1-0 defeat to the New England Revolution. This was the team’s second consecutive loss in Major League Soccer play and third in four games dating back to the CONCACAF Champions League exit on May 5. It’s been a tough early-season stretch for Columbus, one the team hopes turns around quickly.
Let’s take a look at what we learned from this loss to New England.
At the moment, depth is a problem
As mentioned, the Crew had a successful offseason, bringing in MLS veterans Bradley Wright-Phillips, Kevin Molino and Perry Kitchen, to name a few, and added Alexandru Matan on the transfer market. All of these players were expected to help upgrade the roster and prepare the team for stretches of multiple matches in a short period of time.
The problem is, the Black & Gold’s added depth got tested sooner than expected. Injuries have been the story of Columbus’ 2021 so far with Molino yet to make his debut and Kitchen missing multiple games. This is in addition to minor injuries to captain Jonathan Mensah, fullback Milton Valenzuela, midfielders Artur and Darlington Nagbe and forward Gyasi Zardes, all regular starters for this team. On Sunday, the Crew was also without playmaker Lucas Zelarayan and saw both wingers Luis Diaz and Derrick Etienne Jr. leave the game with injuries.
This number of injuries this early in the season, mixed with a stretch of six games in the last 19 days, has been too much for the Black & Gold to handle. And while Porter called this the most difficult stretch of the season, it’s hard to imagine the head coach even realized how tough these last few weeks would be.
In the 2-0 loss to Toronto FC on Wednesday and against the Revolution, it was clear this team is just out of gas and needs a break. Players are being asked to take on a big load, many of which are dealing with minor injury issues of their own, because of others being out and it’s been too much for them.
Additionally, there has been little practice time with the match congestion and travel, meaning the team hasn’t had a chance to get out on the training field and work on issues that have popped up. Instead, players are attempting to recover in between games and struggling to do so.
Sitting on five points through five games in the 2021 season is not where the Crew thought this team would be but it’s not time to hit the panic button yet. The Black & Gold now begin a much more manageable stretch of games without playing two matches in a week for over a month. If players can get healthy and train as normal, this could be a different team than the ones fans have seen recently.
Without Zelarayan (and others), the Crew lacks creativity
If you sat through the 90 minutes of Black & Gold soccer on Sunday, you know how uninspired Columbus looked in the attack. Some of this had to do with the games coming fast and furious, but it was also evident that the Crew severely missed Zelarayan and the spark he brings to the game.
The midfielder, who the ESPN broadcast said missed this contest due to a minor injury, has shown this year and last how he can be a difference-maker. Fans only have to look back to the home game against Monterrey to recognize how much Zelarayan can flip a game with a moment of magic on the ball. Without him, the Crew lacked ideas going forward, registering just six shots, one on target. The best of those came when Artur, not known as an offensive player, took the space given to him and fired a hard shot that hit off the post. Other than that, it was a lot of passing around the attacking third when the Black & Gold had the ball, but no way to break through the Revolution defense.
Without Zelarayan, Santos started in the No. 10 role but struggled in a position he’s played many times for Columbus. His passes were often off the mark and when they did connect, did not set up the Crew in dangerous positions. The wingers, Diaz and Etienne, were limited as well, and, as has been the case far too often this season, they made poor choices with the ball when they got in good spots.
It is apparent that Zelarayan isn’t likely to play every game of the season so Porter and his staff need to come up with another way to attack teams when the MLS Cup Final MVP isn’t on the field. Too often over the last two seasons, missing Zelarayan means missing the Black & Gold attack, as Zardes doesn’t get enough service to be dangerous and other players can’t create for themselves. Molino getting healthy will make a difference in that department, as he can create out wide or play the No. 10, but he has also been a player that’s battled injuries throughout his career.
Columbus is lacking dynamicism on the wings
This story may seem like it’s really harping on all the ways the Crew is struggling offensively, and it is. But Sunday’s game made it very obvious that this team is in a rut after two straight shutouts and needs to figure it out quickly.
Over the years, the Black & Gold have not only used a talented No. 10 to create offense but finding wingers in dangerous positions to play balls into the penalty box for Zardes or whoever was making runs. Right now, there is not enough of that from Columbus, with or without Zelarayan on the field.
As has been the case often this year, the attack focused on the right side for the Crew against the Revolution. This should have meant an active day for Diaz on the wing but the Costa Rican managed just one cross in 58 minutes of action. Fullback Harrison Afful had three cross, none of which found a teammate. Etienne on the left wasn’t much better, getting just one unsuccessful cross served, and left back Waylon Francis, who does not push forward as much as he did in his younger days, also managed one service from the wing that was not successful.
Because teams are familiar with Columbus’ method of attack, and finding ways to limit the crosses from wingers and fullbacks, Porter and his staff might have to get more creative to free these players and get them in better spots. Getting players healthy and having more time to train this aspect of the game will help but it’s a concerning start to the season for the Crew.