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Crew tactical review: More late-game issues in Charlotte

The Black & Gold squandered another lead on Wednesday. But there were positives (and negatives) from their result on the road.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Charlotte FC Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

The Columbus Crew tied yet another game on Wednesday, conceding in stoppage time to settle for a 2-2 draw at Charlotte FC. The Black & Gold went up by two goals before Charlotte stormed back in the second half to give each team a point to take home. This result moves Columbus into seventh place after Orlando City SC lost to Inter Miami on Wednesday night.

Despite the disappointing result, Colimbus showed some real promise for stretches of the match but struggled to consistently get a hold of the game. Let’s dive in.

Lucas Zelarayan drifting out to the wing

Zelarayan has been doing this on and off throughout the season, but Crew fans saw the benefits of the playmaker taking his talents out wide on Wednesday.

Before, Zelarayan received the ball on the wing and was isolated, sometimes losing the ball or other times making the defender look silly. In the game against Charlotte, however, the game plan came together with Zelarayan floating toward the touchline and having help. It was in these pockets that Black & Gold players came short and linked up with the Armenian international to break through Charlotte’s lines.

Typically, this was fullback Pedro Santos, midfielder Darlington Nagbe, winger Derrick Etienne Jr. or forward Cucho Hernandez helping Zelarayan to combine and breakthrough. The best-case scenario was that these players can combine and get in a good cross to a late-arriving Hernandez in the penalty box. The other option was to find winger Luis Diaz on the other side at the back post and use Hernandez as a decoy.

Drawing Hernandez out from playing between the opposing center backs gave Columbus different attacking run options going forward and the chance to confuse Charlotte’s defense by making them find marks while the Crew is attacking. This tactic didn’t result in a goal, but it created some good chances going forward for the Black & Gold.

Lucas Zelarayan on the wing trying to combine with teammates vs Charlotte.

Differences in attacking strategy in both halves

I hate clichés, but it really was a tale of two halves offensively for the Black & Gold. The differences from the strategy in the first half and second half were night and day for the away side as they tried to put Charlotte away to claim three points.

In the first half, Columbus controlled the game from back to front. Despite a few chances the Charlotte may have got, the Crew went in during halftime feeling really good about the performance they put in. The central idea in the first half was to control the ball and attack the wide backs of the home side.

When I say control the ball, I don’t mean the longs spells of possession and side to side passing from the Gregg Berhalter era, I mean the type of possession that is all about making safe passes, but also trying to move up the pitch and combine. Columbus wanted to move up the field and then find themselves in a positive numerical situation, then they would go wide.

One thing Charlotte tended to do a lot throughout the first half was shift their outside backs a little too far towards the middle of the pitch. This would sometimes leave wingers Derrick Etienne or Luis Diaz in a nice pocket of space for the ball to be played to them and allow them to create and attack.

The problem for Charlotte was if their outside backs didn’t recover in time, they could be forced to watch Diaz or Etienne blaze past their defense and put the ball in the back of the net. Only a minute into the game (tonight’s game) Etienne had a chance down the left side because Charlotte had over shifted towards the center of the pitch.

Winger Derrick Etienne exploits Charlotte’s overshift by staying wide

In the second half, Columbus shifted to a counter attack. Especially after Charlotte got the first goal and the Crew was backed up, the Black & Gold soaked up pressure and then broke with pace. Leading the line was typically Hernandez, Zelarayan and one of the wingers, which led to some good spaces and scoring situations.

Head coach Caleb Porter said after the match that Columbus needed to continue to play as the team did in the first half, but credit to Charlotte for battling back into the game and forcing the Crew to change the way the team played.

The Crew took advantage of a 3 v. 2 situation on the counter against Charlotte.

Tactically breaking down Charlotte’s second goal

There were multiple players at fault for the Black & Gold conceding in stoppage time, so let’s break it down.

The first problem happened when Charlotte got the ball on the wing in the 93rd minute. Winger Kamil Jozwiak for Charlotte was being marked by center back Josh Williams, but then curved his run towards the end line behind unsuspecting left back Will Sands. Williams didn’t communicate with Sands quickly enough, which allowed Jozwiak to receive the ball on the edge of the penalty box with time to pick out a cross. Defending is all about communicating, and Williams and Sands miss the mark this time.

The second mistake came when Williams made his recovery run and decided to slide to the end line to prevent a pass to be played in the six-yard box in front of goalkeeper Eloy Room. In this situation, Williams panicked and tried to make the extra effort as he recovered. If that ball was played across the six-yard box, Williams has to trust that either Room can corral it, or right back Steven Moreira is marking at the back post. If he stayed on his feet and checks where runners are in the 18-yard box as he’s recovering, he might have a better chance at intercepting the ball and clearing it.

The final mistake was lazy Columbus defending. Once the ball is crossed and the initial shot is blocked by center back Milos Degenek, Charlotte forward Daniel Rios had the ball at his feet in front of goal. It was a good play by Degenek, but it was the aftermath that will drive Porter mad.

As Rios loads up to cross the ball, all seven Crew defenders have their eyes locked on the ball. Not one is looking to find marks or cover. Three unmarked Charlotte runners in the penalty box and all the defenders are caught ball-watching. Sure enough, Rios crossed the ball in to be finished by one of his unmarked Charlotte teammates and that secured the draw.

No Crew defender is aware of where his mark is as the ball comes into the penalty box.

Every team will make mistakes defending in late-game situations because the stakes are so high, but this has been a reoccurring theme for the Black & Gold. This is not strictly a coaching issue, because Porter can’t go and clear the ball himself, but the blame is equal between the coaches and the players. Simple communication and calmness of nerves could have saved a win for Columbus.