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What We Learned: Crew vs. New York Red Bulls

Not every cloud has a silver lining. Some just have rain.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at New York Red Bulls Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

There is no sugar-coating a fifth straight loss. The Columbus Crew dropped a narrow 1-0 contest on the road against the New York Red Bulls on Wednesday night, but never looked a side that was in the game.

It’s hard to find positives in the loss, especially when they come five in a row. The injury list continues to grow even longer than the losing streak, and now Gyasi Zardes is added to it, the offense still looks lost and the road ahead is a hard one.

Sometimes all you learn is painful lessons on what not to do. Let’s take a look at our takeaways from the defeat at the Red Bulls.

The 4-4-2 isn’t going to fix the Crew’s big offensive problems

Needing to rotate and rest playmaker Lucas Zelarayan, the Crew came out in a two-striker formation. The game plan appeared to be to break quickly on the counter attack, but it didn’t work enough.

After a bright start, Columbus struggled to progress the ball from the defensive to the attacking third against New York’s press. Under pressure, the backline was reduced to long hopeful balls forward, often not to an intended target. These long balls bypassed wingers Alexandru Matan and Kevin Molino and rarely connected with Bradley Wright-Phillips and Zardes.

This formation also suffered from a lack of creativity in midfield. Liam Frasier is industrious, but struggles with linking play. The ultimate linking player, Darlington Nagbe, was often left isolated when he did have the ball. There was no route forward with both strikers playing high.

The inability to counter or possess left the Black & Gold defense under siege after the first 15 minutes in the first half. The Red Bulls consistently had the ball in the Crew end of the field and often in transition. The failed Columbus counters left the forwards unable to press, the midfield scattered and the backline out of shape. Eventually, it ended up in a New York goal.

Columbus reverted to the 4-2-3-1 when Zardes was forced off with an injury. Zelarayan came in and settled in as the playmaker. The Black & Gold still struggled to build and had little fluency despite the change to the team’s familiar system, only starting to create much in the way of quality chances when desperate late.

Minutes and years are catching up to the Crew

The injury bug has bit Columbus hard this season. Some of the injuries are unfortunate bad luck, such as Aiden Morris’s torn ACL or Luis Diaz’s shoulder injury. However, there are also significant soft tissue injuries that have popped up from wear and tear.

Perhaps different treatment programs can limit these injuries, but it’s likely the team was bound to struggle with players landing on the league’s “Availability Report” for two reasons. First, the Black & Gold are the oldest team in the league by average player age by almost a year. Columbus’ average age is 28.5 years old. The Portland Timbers are second oldest at 27.7 years.

Several of the team’s veteran players have lengthy stays on the sidelines. Center back Josh Williams, 33, has been limited to seven of the team’s 20 games. Molino, 31, has 10 appearances and seven starts. Defender Vito Wormgoor, 32, has played seven times in 2020. Recovery time is just a little bit slower as players age.

The other problem is the minutes that many of these players are clocking in a short amount of time. Zardes was struck by the injury bug on Wednesday, which comes as no surprise, even given how durable he has been in his time in Columbus. Since the beginning of July, the forward has clocked 339 minutes for the Crew and 361 minutes for the U.S. Men’s National Team. That’s the equivalent of seven full games and an additional 70-minute appearance in a month and a half. Even before July, Zardes was busy. He tallied 806 minutes in MLS and 179 additional minutes of CONCACAF Champions League play.

Zardes is one of the best-conditioned players on the team and has a sterling injury history throughout his career, but it’s likely the minutes he’s logged played a part in his non-contact leg injury on Wednesday.

Midfielder Marlon Hairston isn’t a national team player, but he’s been a critical cog for the Black & Gold this summer. After recovering from a bruised knee, Hairston appeared in 10 straight matches between June 24 and Aug. 8, a span of 45 days. Seven of his appearances were starts and he came on at halftime in one of his substitution appearances for a total of 644 minutes. Hairston is now out with a thigh issue and it’s not a stretch to think his minutes over the past month and a half played a role.

Playoffs?

Just a month ago, the postseason wouldn’t have been a question. The defending champions were safely ensconced in MLS Cup playoff position. The team struggled to look its best with a lack of continuity, but they were within striking distance of home field advantage for its opening games and in a position to make a postseason run. Essentially a repeat of 2020.

With the five-game losing streak, the Crew has now slipped out of playoff position. Columbus sits three points behind CF Montreal for the final postseason spot, but there’s a growing pack ready to pass. The Black & Gold are tied on points with Atlanta United, a team that just snapped a 12-game winless streak by beating the Crew. The Red Bulls are just two points back with a game in hand.

The road doesn’t get any easier as the Seattle Sounders — a team in second place in the Supporters’ Shield race — comes to Lower.com Field on Saturday, then FC Cincinnati travels to Columbus in a matchup that will test the nerves of Black & Gold faithful. Trips to Orlando City SC and the New England Revolution — the top team in the standings — loom in September.

With Zardes now on the lengthy injury list and the offense showing no signs of getting on track, the playoffs are clearly a question now.