The Columbus Crew, the defending MLS Cup champions, lost for a fourth straight game on Sunday evening, falling 1-0 to the Chicago Fire. There are no typos there. The team that brought home the title just eight months ago now hasn’t won a game in nearly a month and is now sitting on the outside looking in at the playoffs after 19 games played in 2021.
Players aren't happy. Neither are coaches. Fans are rightfully irritated. All of them want to see this team turn things around and quickly.
And while the game against the Fire didn’t result in any points, it was a step in the right direction for the Black & Gold to return to winning ways. Let’s take a look at what we learned from this Columbus loss.
The Crew’s defense returns to form
After allowing 11 goals in the last three games, including four goals in back-to-back contests, it was a very clear objective for the Black & Gold to be better defensively on Sunday. Columbus didn’t throw as many numbers forward against Chicago, keeping things tight at the back in order to stay in the contest.
Head coach Caleb Porter’s plan worked. While the Fire had 17 shots, only seven of those were on goal. The defenders seemed more confident in front of the home-side attackers and goalkeeper Eloy Room once again came up big saves when he was called upon.
This was the type of defending that made the Crew so hard to beat last year and what kept the team in games for most of this season. It was team defending that limited Chicago — in all fairness, not a great attacking side — offensively, holding the team to an expected goals of just over one.
In the game of soccer, however, it only takes one chance to change an outcome and the Fire took that chance in the 77th minute when Luka Stojanovic jumped on a loose ball in the penalty box and put it home while the Black & Gold defenders appealed for a handball.
While a loss is a loss and this team needs to start getting points, seeing Columbus defend better than the last three matches should give fans at least a little bit of confidence that the Crew will get back to playing the way the team is capable, especially as more players get healthy.
The Black & Gold offense is problematic
Columbus isn’t an elite offensive team. The Crew wasn’t an elite offensive team last year. To win in MLS, you don’t need to be elite offensively; you just have to be good enough.
Right now, the Black & Gold aren’t good enough.
It’s worth pointing out that this team has scored five goals in the last four matches which, if the defense played the way it did on Sunday might have resulted in more points. But the problem is, most of these goals came when the Crew was desperate, throwing numbers forward when facing a multi-goal deficit against a team that was only defending.
The Black & Gold haven’t been able to play their ideal possession style, which usually leads to chances created. The team is struggling to create chances in other ways and questions should be asked of some of Columbus’ attackers.
As good as Lucas Zelarayan is, the Crew’s No. 10 isn’t a true playmaker in that he doesn’t create many opportunities for his teammates. This isn’t to take away from his ability in the slightest, just to say that when the Black & Gold need a player to help set up goals, Zelarayan — who has just seven career MLS assists — isn’t that guy.
In the past, Pedro Santos has done well in the set-up role, but his play on the wing has fallen off as he’s gotten older. Derrick Etienne Jr. was dangerous against the Fire, but only created one clear-cut chance.
With a striker like Gyasi Zardes, the team needs to get the ball in the penalty box and find their No. 11 in good positions. Right now, that’s not happening enough and it is a reason — compounded by the poor defending of late — that this team is struggling.
The Crew didn’t have a shot on goal until second half substitute Alexandru Matan finally struck a ball on target late in the game. This led to the best chance of the contest for the visitors. Columbus needs more of this.
Things aren’t falling the Black & Gold’s way right now
“When it rains, it pours,” is an overly used quote and probably not exactly true in this situation, but right now, the Crew can’t catch a break. Over the last few matches, there have been questionable officiating decisions, balls not bouncing the team’s way and players just making uncharacteristic mistakes. This was true, to some degree, again on Sunday.
On Chicago’s goal, multiple Columbus players raised their hands for a handball. While replay showed it would have been tough for VAR to go back and overturn the play, the fact that these Black & Gold players all had the same thought instead of attempting to get in front of Stojanovic’s shot says something.
Additionally, center back Jonathan Mensah was taken out on a last-chance effort in stoppage time. With Jonathan remaining in a heap on the field, the final whistle blew shortly after and there was no chance for the Crew to appeal for VAR to award the team a late penalty kick despite a foul occurring in the penalty box.
This has been the way things have gone for Columbus of late. And while the referees can be better, these things tend to even themselves out throughout the course of a season. Of course, the Crew also needs to create some of its own luck, and improved and more consistent play would help that. But it just seems the Soccer Gods aren’t with the Black & Gold right now.