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What We Learned: Crew vs. Atlanta United

Our takeaways from Columbus’ third straight loss and second in a row at Field.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Kyle Robertson/Columbus Dispatch via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The woes for the Columbus Crew continued on Saturday in a 3-2 loss to Atlanta United at Field. This was club’s third straight defeat and second at its new home stadium and came to a team that hadn’t won in 12 games. In the three losses, the Black & Gold have conceded at least three goals in each with a total of 11 during this poor run of form.

This losing streak comes smack in the middle of the season and is the first three-match winless run for the Crew since July of 2019. That 2019 Columbus squad responded to the three-match losing streak with just two defeats the rest of the year, a response Crew fans can only hope the club can duplicate in 2021.

Here are takeaways from yet another Crew loss at Field.

The Crew needs its center backs back

The defensive play has been a core reason Columbus has seen this change in form. It was yet another match where the Black & Gold conceded early in a moment the defense could have done better. Head coach Caleb Porter said after the game that a team can never concede on the first chance it gives to its opponent. That happened again on Saturday when Atlanta went on its first attack in the fifth minute and found the back of the net.

During this losing run, the Crew has had three different combinations of backlines. Saturday was the most unique starting defense as midfielder Liam Fraser played at center back in favor of Aboubacar Keita. The Canadian was among the better performers on Saturday, as he felt comfortable in defense all game and looked it as well. A midfielder playing center back is not a viable long-term solution for this team, however, and they need another center back in the rotation fast.

Luckily, both Vito Wormgoor and Josh Williams are closer to returning which gives Jonathan Mensah another natural defender to play next to sooner rather than later. Throughout his time in Columbus, Mensah has been better when playing alongside a central defender he trusts. That is certainly the case with Williams, who was next to him throughout much of the run to the MLS Cup last year, but the Copley, Ohio native hasn’t played since mid-June with an ankle injury.

The defense has had no consistency to start August and getting either Wormgoor or Williams back could be a key to a turnaround in form for the backline.

Columbus has to score first more frequently in games

Pedro Santos simply said after the loss that Crew didn’t start playing until the team was down 2-0. Getting the first goal would be key to changing that. In five of the last eight matches, the Black & Gold have gone down 2-0 in the first half and three of those matches resulted in losses. But what has happened this season when Columbus scores first? Only good things.

So far this year, the Crew has scored the first goal in five of its 18 matches. Those five matches were a win against D.C. United, a win against Toronto FC, a win against the Chicago Fire, a win against New York City FC and a win against Atlanta United. Do you see the trend here? Columbus is a very hard team to defeat — and this was the case a season ago as well — when taking a lead, especially when the backline is playing with confidence.

This team showed that it has the mentality and depth to claw back from behind for results, but putting themselves in that situation so many times has caught up to the Black & Gold. In 2020, the Crew scored first in most of its games and in those matches, the team always controlled the tempo in dominating performances. Columbus is missing that right now and statistics show it’s a good thing when the Black & Gold can get up 1-0 in a match.

Confidence is dipping

Losing streaks can have players go through all sorts of emotions. Anger, frustration, self-doubt and more. Porter highlighted that his players are lacking confidence on the pitch during that stretch, especially defensively, a mentality that can seep into performances.

Watching from above in the press box at Field gives a chance to see players' body language from afar. At times, these players dip their heads or get frustrated when an open pass isn’t made by a teammate. Those little things don’t confirm that the locker room relationships are dwindling — the Crew players are a family and players have each other’s backs — but moments like the one Columbus is in right now is tough on any team.

The question is, how does the Black & Gold get back the confidence and belief the team had just a couple of weeks ago.

Winning cures all is the simple answer, but small steps can be made in these next two road games against the Chicago Fire and the New York Red Bulls without the result factoring. A game where the defense doesn’t concede early and makes no individual errors is especially crucial to restarting the process of gaining confidence. The offense scoring some open play chances as well on the road will be helpful, something the Black & Gold haven’t done much of this year, even when winning.

Even if the Crew doesn’t get wins in its next two matches, the team must change the performances. Fans need to see a match where Columbus doesn’t give away a goal in the first 15 minutes or puts the team in a big hole.

That will get this team’s confidence back up and the results to come flooding back.