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What We Learned: Crew vs. D.C. United

The Black & Gold put together another disappointing performance, giving us plenty of takeaways.

Massive Report

It happened again. The Columbus Crew dropped its second game in a row, this time at home, with an all-in-all lackluster performance. The Crew fell 4-2 to D.C. United on Wednesday night, making it consecutive games of conceding four goals.

After a fairly bright start to the match, the Black & Gold allowed three first half goals to put themselves in a large hole at the break. Columbus was able to battle back in the second half, pulling the score to 3-2 before a fourth and final goal sealed the win for the visitors.

Players, coaches and fans left Lower.com Field feeling frustrated with these last two results and looking for a much better performance on Saturday when Atlanta United comes to town.

Let’s take a look at what we learned from another disappointing defeat.

This team needs to get whole

It’s been rare in 2021 for the Crew to have all of the pieces available for a game. Whether it’s the injury bug, which hit the Black & Gold early and is yet to truly fade away, or international call-ups, the vision by head coach Caleb Porter and president and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko has not had a chance to be realized.

Once again against D.C., Columbus was without three starters on the backline and a key central midfielder in Artur who won’t be back from injury, at the earliest, until late in the regular season. Fullback Harrison Afful, wingers Pedro Santos and Luis Diaz, as well as forward Gyasi Zardes were not in the starting 11 due to rest.

While the defense, even without Josh Williams, Vito Wormgoor or Milton Valenzuela recently, has played well throughout most of the season, it was apparent that the Crew missed its top players. With Jonathan Mensah admittedly off his game against United, Aboubacar Keita was not able to rise to the challenge and instead made two costly mistakes. Waylon Francis continues to show his age, no longer able to keep up with most MLS wingers.

Lucas Zelarayan and Kevin Molino were only able to create so much in the first half. Neither Erik Hurtado nor Derrick Etienne, despite creating chances, showed the necessary finishing touch in front of goal necessary to be consistently dangerous.

In the second half, when Zardes, Diaz and Pedro Santos entered the game, the Crew looked more like the Crew, creating good opportunities with regularity and scoring two goals to bring the score back to 3-2. If not for a bad giveaway and the second mistake defensively by Keita, the Black & Gold might have come out of that game with a miraculous point due to the second half comeback.

What is clear is that when this team has its pieces available and on the field, Columbus is as good as there is in MLS. Despite building quality depth in the offseason, many of those players are depth for a reason. When asked to play consistent minutes, there are mistakes and in a tight Eastern Conference, those mistakes can lead to giving up points.

The defense may not be as good as we thought

You’ve likely seen the stats mentioned by now: the Crew gave up just 12 goals through the first 15 games and then conceded eight goals in the last two. Those early numbers had the team among the best in the league defensively. But a closer look reveals a defense that hasn’t been as perfect as the numbers show.

While the Black & Gold has six shutouts on the year, one of those came against a Philadelphia Union team in the midst of a Champions League run and a CF Montreal side that has failed to score five times this season. Another shutout was against Austin FC, a team that was unlucky to score in the opening seconds of the contest and had numerous other chances. Columbus also allowed two goals to FC Cincinnati, a side with only 17 finishes on the year, and two more to Toronto FC, one of the worst teams in MLS this season.

If you want to put analytics to it, the Black & Gold have allowed 20 goals but have an expected goal conceded of 22.4. This is a sign that more goals should have been scored this year against Columbus.

Eloy Room has played out of his skin to keep the Crew in games. While a good goalkeeper is expected to bail out his team at times, a lot has been asked of Room. When he’s delivered, and when Jonathan has played at MLS Defender of the Year level, is when the Black & Gold have been at their best defensively.

This is not to say that Columbus is poor defensively. The Crew’s defense carried the team to an MLS Cup title last year and has the potential to do so again. But allowing four goals in back-to-back games isn’t something last year’s group did — in fact, it hadn’t happened to this team since 2011 — and is a sign that the backline is not as secure it might have seemed earlier in the year.

It’s not time to panic

Yes, consecutive blowout losses are not what the doctor ordered, especially coming off a six-match unbeaten run. But there’s no reason to believe this Crew side can’t turn things back around.

First, this team has shown mental toughness for the vast majority of the season. While that wasn’t the case either of the last two games, perhaps this is the wake up call this group needed to get back on track. Both Porter and Jonathan intimated as much in the postgame press conference.

Second, the team is finally getting everyone back. Zardes, Diaz and Liam Fraser returned from the Gold Cup. Both Valenzuela and Wormgoor are back in training and Williams has been listed as questionable on the injury report the last couple of games, meaning all three are getting closer to returning. As mentioned above, a full-strength Black & Gold team is going to do well in MLS.

Finally, poor runs of form happen all the time in MLS. While giving up eight goals means there needs to be some soul searching within the defense, teams bounce back. It didn’t happen on Wednesday night but that doesn’t mean it won’t. Maybe even as soon as Saturday.