There’s a lot to be said about midfielder Lucas Zelarayan’s free kick brace performance against New York City FC, but there’s another element about the Columbus Crew’s set pieces platy that sticks out. So far in 2021, the Crew has defended opponent’s opportunities well. In six matches played, the Black & Gold have only given up two goals from those plays. Unfortunately, both were against this Saturday’s opponent, Toronto FC.
In the 13th minute, a Toronto corner did its best impression of a pinball in the penalty area. It bounced off multiple TFC players before landing at the feet of midfield captain Michael Bradley, who scored the first of two goals that day in a 2-0 defeat for the Black & Gold. Head coach Caleb Porter saw a clear issue on the corner.
“We should have cleared the ball four or five times,” said Porter this week. “We didn’t look aggressive enough in that moment in the box. Four or Five guys. Too passive.”
It’s those moments in the match that make a big difference. If one player clears that ball away, the match has a potentially different outcome. Instead of playing behind for over 75 minutes of the match, the Crew could have taken advantage of a more open field of play.
The 87th minute saw Bradley turn from scorer to distributor with a set piece that didn’t give Columbus much of a chance to clear. It began with a pass to center back Omar Gonzalez. His subsequent header into the front of goal found forward Jozy Altidore for the last nail in the Crew’s coffin.
On the goal, fullback Harrison Afful was the only player close enough to stop Altidore. That’s a tall task for a defender six inches shorter and at least 40 pounds smaller than the American striker. Altidore made Columbus pay on the mismatch. For goalkeeper Eloy Room, the reason for those goals is preparedness.
“We have to organize quick, that’s the most important thing,” said Room. “You saw the clips, sometimes we’re not organized when they’re already ready to play.”
On both set pieces for Toronto, the home side caught Columbus sleeping.
Part of the reason is that this first matchup in May was the team’s fifth match in 15 days. As much as the Crew won’t say it, and supporters equally don’t want to hear it, that many matches in a short timeframe will cause fatigue. Toronto was able to exploit that extra rest through quick preparation.
Against TFC, on Saturday, it’ll be a more well-rested Crew side, having played just twice in the past two weeks. In that time, set pieces have been an area of focus. For Porter, it’s going to go a long way.
“That’s going to be a key thing, especially with Omar Gonzalez,” said Porter on one area where they don’t want to make the same mistake twice. “He’s a key guy, one of the best guys in the league on set pieces.”
There are 28 matches left for the Black & Gold to right early-season wrongs. A key in that is making sure that opponents don’t have the luxury of scoring on set pieces. Columbus will force the opposition to create goals in the run of play. Room and the Crew aren’t worried about it because of the training they’re putting into improving a team strength.
“In this game, we’re going to show that we’ve learned from our mistakes,” said Room.