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What We Learned: Crew vs. Atlanta United

The Black & Gold’s win at Atlanta gave us plenty of takeaways.

SOCCER: JUL 24 MLS - Columbus Crew SC at Atlanta United FC Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Columbus Crew may not be a great team away from home, but the Black & Gold seem to get important road wins when they matter. On Saturday afternoon, in front of 67,000-plus fans, including Kanye West, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and while on national television, the Crew earned a 1-0 win against a struggling Atlanta United side.

While beating Atlanta isn’t what it used to be — the Five Stripes have lost five times in 14 games this year and just fired their head coach — Columbus getting a win of any sort right now is impressive given the team still has multiple players out with injury or away on international duty. Jonathan Mensah’s 65th minute goal kept the Black & Gold’s six-game unbeaten streak alive but was only the Crew’s second win in that stretch.

The victory against United taught us plenty about this Columbus team. Let’s take a look at the biggest things we learned from the game.

The Crew not only has a Plan B, but a Plan C

Under former head coach Gregg Berhalter, fans often questioned what the Crew would do if the first plan of attack didn’t work; did the team have a Plan B? There is no need for Black & Gold fans to worry about that under third-year head coach Caleb Porter.

Earlier this month against FC Cincinnati, Porter made a major adjustment to his tactics, going without a true forward in a 2-2 draw. Playmaker Lucas Zelarayan, playing much of the game as a “False 9,” or a forward that isn’t really a forward, put in a man of the match performance with a goal and an assist in a dramatic two-goal comeback.

In Saturday’s game against Atlanta, Porter took things a step further, going away from the team’s typical 4-2-3-1 formation and instead starting the match in a 4-4-2. Not only did this put forwards Bradley Wright-Phillips and Erik Hurtado on the field together, but also allowed central midfielders Darlington Nagbe and Marlon Hairston to sit deeper and help defend against United’s attack and Kevin Molino and Alexandru Matan to play as inverted wingers that were ready to burst out and help get the team into attack in transition when the opportunity presented itself.

This plan worked well in the first half, as the Five Stripes had shots but not too many dangerous chances. Columbus had opportunities to hit on the counter, including when Wright-Phillips found Hurtado on the break for the best chance of the first half. Unfortunately, the recently signed forward didn’t put his shot on frame.

While it likely won’t be often that the Crew plays without a true striker on the field or with two out there to start a match, and the team went back to its normal formation in the second half when Lucas Zelarayan and Derrick Etienne entered the match, it’s good to see that not only is there a Plan B and C, but that those plans can get results. And maybe fans will see more of the two-forward look for the Black & Gold after starting forward Gyasi Zardes worked out of a similar look for the United States Men’s National Team recently.

Eloy Room is making a case for MLS Goalkeeper of the Year

In his first full season with the Crew, Room showed his quality by by making 43 saves and recording seven shutouts in the COVID-shortened 23-game season. This production in goal made Room a finalist for MLS Goalkeeper of the Year.

So far in 2021, Room has out-performed what he was able to do in either of his first two seasons in Columbus. In 10 games this year, the goalkeeper already has 35 saves and five clean sheets, tied for third-best in MLS. He is one of three goalkeepers in MLS who have played 10 or more games this season to have a goal against average below 1.00.

On Saturday, Room was outstanding yet again to get that fifth shutout this year, despite facing Atlanta’s Josef Martinez, one of the best forwards in MLS. Room was credited with five saves in the match, including a couple that looked destined for the back of the net. Late in the game, United threw numbers forward and Room was comfortable coming off his line to help his defense preserve the shutout.

This is nothing new for the Crew goalkeeper, who has kept his team in games throughout this year. But with each passing contest, it only justifies the talent the Black & Gold have in goal. If Room keeps up this play, it’s going to be hard to deny the Curaçao international some individual silverware at the end of the campaign.

Columbus found something in Marlon Hairston and Saad Abdul-Salaam

When the Crew signed Hariston in early March, the idea was he would play right back and learn how to be an attacking player at the position similiar to starter Harrison Afful. Massive Report was told at the time that it was a low-risk move and if he could train at that position for a while, the staff saw a player that could be the successor to the 35-year-old Afful.

The Black & Gold may have found their next right back, but it’s not Hairston. After Hairston suffered an injury in preseason, Columbus signed Abdul-Salaam in April to provide cover for Afful. Abdul-Salaam made his second start in three games at right back against Atlanta and once again performed well. While he doesn’t attack as much as Afful, he provides good defensive cover and adds size that the Ghaniana does not.

When Hairston got healthy, and with Abdul-Salaam now on the roster, he began to practice some at central midfield given the injuries to Artur and Perry Kitchen and Liam Fraser’s continued absence while on international duty with Canada. Porter and the Crew staff liked what they saw from Hairston at the position and he has now played in seven games for the Black & Gold in midfield and made four starts.

While Afful is likely to continue to be the first-choice right back when available, it’s good to have some depth at the position. And with questions about if/when Artur will return this season, having a player who can do some of the same things could be important until he gets back.