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The Crew can’t rely on Zelarayan’s set piece magic; the rest of the offense must get going

Columbus Crew SC v New York City FC Photo by Ira L. Black - Corbis/Getty Images

The Columbus Crew walked out of Red Bull Arena on Saturday night with a 2-1 victory against New York City FC. It was the team’s second win of the year in Major League Soccer play, the first coming earlier this month against D.C. United, and ended a two-game losing streak and a road winless streak that went back to September of 2019.

“I think for our guys to come on the road, beat that team get all three points, it says a lot about our mentality,” head coach Caleb Porter said on Saturday evening after the match. “It wasn’t perfect, there’s a lot to improve on, but for sure this will help with our confidence. I said it at halftime to the broadcast, it’s all confidence. Even the best teams, best players you see around the world, the same thing happens — results aren’t coming (and) you have a little dip in confidence.”

There will certainly be confidence for Columbus after getting a win against a New York City side that started 2021 well, earning points in all four of the team’s previous contests before falling to the Crew. But as Porter said, the performance was not perfect. Some of that credit goes to NYCFC and head coach Ronny Deila for the way his team plays. But some of the blame has to go on the Black & Gold as well.

The most noticeable issue for Columbus so far in 2021 is the inability to score goals. Despite ending the night with two finishes, the Crew is yet to score from the run of play in MLS action. While Saturday’s two free kick strikes from playmaker Lucas Zelarayan — who was named the MLS Player of the Week for his performance — were impressive, it continues a trend of disappointment in front of goal for the defending MLS Cup champions.

So far this season, the Black & Gold managed to score four times against Real Esteli, a side clearly overmatched, in Leg 1 of the CONCACAF Champions League Round of 16. In the second leg, with a heavily rotated lineup, Columbus scored just one goal. The Crew did strike twice at home in the first leg against Monterrey in the Champions League quarterfinal but could not finish when needing to do so in order to advance in the second leg.

Other than those matches, the Black & Gold have a 3-1 win against United that saw D.C. score two own goals and Saturday’s victory.

In all competitions this year, the Crew has been shut out five times in 10 games played. In a shortened 2020 season that saw Columbus play just 24 games, the Black & Gold failed to score just three times.

When the Crew has found the back of the net, the common thread is Zelarayan. In every game Columbus has scored this year, Zelarayan has either provided a goal or an assist. His free kicks against D.C. and NYCFC are the last three goals the Black & Gold have scored.

“When you look at a Lucas Zelarayan, it’s hard for me to talk to you guys without mentioning him specifically because I’ve never seen or coached a player that scored two free kicks in one game,” Porter said of the Argentine after Saturday’s two-goal performance. “And the quality that he showed, even on that second goal, he looked like the Argentine Babe Ruth. He’s pointing in the corner and walking off before he even hit the ball. It was unbelievable. It’s just a different level this kid, and I’m just so happy that it came through for him because I thought he was the best player on the field today the entire game, and he stuck with it.”

And while the Crew paid a record fee to bring the 2020 MLS Cup MVP to Columbus for moments like this, asking Zelarayan to carry all of the scoring workload is too much. The Black & Gold’s No. 10 has proven in just his second season with the club to be one of the best players in MLS, but even the best players need help.

Teams around the league have made it a point to target Zelarayan after he was named MLS Newcomer of the Year in 2020, man-marking him throughout matches, sometimes with more than one defender. It’s caused the playmaker to have to change his game, often getting on the ball in different positions than he did a year ago, positions that are less dangerous.

And while his free kick prowess is impressive — Zelarayan is already halfway to the league record of six direct free kick goals in a single MLS season — the Crew can’t rely on his set pieces as the team’s only means of scoring goals. When the team does, performances such as the 2-0 loss to Toronto FC or the 1-0 defeat at the hands of the New England Revolution, two games where Columbus had a combined four shots on goal without Zelarayan’s magic, occur.

Instead, the Black & Gold need to get back to attacking in different ways. While Zelarayan, when on the field, is the catalyst for the offense, other players must step up, as they did a year ago when the Crew scored 36 goals, tied for eighth best in MLS.

Gyasi Zardes has been Columbus’ leading scorer in each of his first three seasons with the team, but the U.S. forward is yet to find the back of the net in MLS play. Wingers Pedro Santos, Luis Diaz and Derrick Etienne Jr. aren’t consistently getting into good positions and when they do, the cross to find Zardes or another attacking player in the penalty box is rarely on target.

“We have to stay focused on the process of what we’re doing — improving, reflecting, correcting, trying to execute better our game model, both sides of the ball,” Porter said on Saturday. “I thought it was a little better today (but it) still needs to be better. A lot of that is confidence, I think. There were some good moments. You could see that we worked on some things.

“Our final third play I thought still needed to be better, but you saw the intent there at least. We wanted to get back into getting crosses into Gyasi because that’s how he scores and he’s very good in the box. I thought, in many games, we were too patient and overthinking it. You just need to get balls in the box, and at some point, good things happen. Even if it’s on the regain, in the second wave and the counter pressure to create a foul, which kind of happened several times. We didn’t maybe hit the cross, that quality, it’s a bit frustrating. We need to work on that. There were many that we missed.”

Finding a way to get a win, especially against a good team like New York City, while still looking for goals is a positive that the Crew will certainly take. But at some point, the rest of the offense has to get going or this team will struggle to get results, especially on the road, in MLS. Relying on fouls and Zelarayan’s free kick accuracy simply won’t cut it.

After the busy start to the season, the Black & Gold had more time to work in training on aspects of the game last week and, as Porter said, there were improvements. Those improvements must now start to turn into better chances and players scoring from the run of play.