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What We Learned: Crew vs. Vancouver Whitecaps

The Black & Gold made tidy work of a 2021 playoff side.

Sam Fahmi - Massive Report

The beginning of the Major League Soccer season is an open book. With one game down and 33 matches, there are many pages to come and a lot to learn about a team.

On Saturday, the Columbus Crew opened the year and provided the first real opportunity to see what the team is about in 2022. Here are a few things we learned from both sides of the ball in the Crew’s 4-0 victory against the Vancouver Whitecaps.

The wingers are alright

On paper, there’s really not a much better way to start a season than a 4-0 win. Columbus tied the franchise record of a four-goal margin of victory to start a season. That’s how good the Crew offense played against the Whitecaps.

It was the winger play that helped put all of it together. After a 2021 season where the Black & Gold only scored four goals from wingers in the run of play, Columbus scored two in one afternoon. The second goal of the evening, a clinical finish by winger Derrick Etienne Jr., was assisted by another winger, newcomer Yaw Yeboah.

The Crew winger group of Etienne, Luis Diaz and Alexandru Matan have shown flashes of their skill the past two seasons, and Yeboah’s first regular season match with the Black & Gold showed signs of his own brilliance. Saturday was the match that showed how dangerous Columbus can be when the position is firing on all cylinders.

Etienne came into the season with a personal goal of being a better finisher and taking more chances. He did that tonight in his 25th minute goal off a beautiful Yeboah cross from just inside midfield. Yeboah impacted the match outside of his one assist, forcing a red card with his pace to run behind the Vancouver defense.

When the Crew’s attack is clicking, it’s when wingers are finding space, breaking tackles and putting shots on net and balls into the pnealty box. This gave forward Miguel Berry, midfielder Lucas Zelarayán and fullbacks Steven Moreira and Pedro Santos more space to navigate, causing havoc within the minds of the Whitecap defense. Now it’s about keeping a performance like this returning.

Quiet defensive strength

When people talk about the lackluster 2021 Crew season, they point to the defense. Only one player, captain Jonathan Mensah, played more than 20 matches, and injuries/inconsistency made the Columbus defense anything but intimidating to opponents. Saturday put the league on notice that last year is in the rearview mirror.

Entering the 2022 season, the Black & Gold refreshed the center back position, saying goodbye to three players and adding two. Saturday’s match featured one of those new signings in Miloš Degenek. With Crew veteran Josh Williams sidelined with a quad injury, the Australian played next to Mensah. The result speaks for itself in the first clean sheet in the first match of the season.

Degenek and Mensah are similar players in that they’re on-field leaders. That could mean a potential power struggle, but it seems like those are few and far between up and down the Crew roster. Degenek and Mensah played well together. Never did one get in the other’s way or expect the other to come in and save them on a bad play.

Vancouver rarely had a chance on offense. Part of that is losing the team’s 2021 top goal scorer Brian White in the lead-up to the contest, but the Whitecaps were completely stifled. Vancouver had seven total shots, none on goal. Only once did goalkeeper Eloy Room have to intervene on a play, and that was catching a corner kick.

Mensah and Degenek didn’t make flashy, highlight-reel tackles, but they did the things that win games. They played the ball, cleared it when needed and covered a lot of space. This is what the Black & Gold center backs need to do more consistently in 2022

Coaches are political

Saying head coach Caleb Porter is political is not a donkey or elephant type of politics. It’s the words said to the public as a means to control a situation. Saturday was only one match, and a second-week trip to the San Jose Earthquakes could make supporters look back and hope that one day the Crew return to that form.

With that said, on Tuesday, Porter shared in media availability that he saw this team grinding out victories and wouldn’t win three- or four-goal matches regularly. After Saturday, that looks more and more like a means to calm expectations coming into the season. After all, Etienne Jr. also told the same media members that he sees this Black & Gold team as being able to score three or four goals a game when the chemistry is built and players are shooting like they should.

In one match, starting two new players that’ve had less than three weeks with the team and a striker who was a backup last year, Columbus did what Porter said they wouldn’t do.

For the talk that maybe Porter was trying to divert attention away, there can be equal talk that players touting chemistry and getting along with their teammates can be as equally as empty. This team talks about chemistry and its evident on the field.

In the way that the players celebrate for one another, how Berry and forward Gyasi Zardes simultaneously compete for a job but help each other get better or a winger moving to fullback like Santos. There’s something different about this team, and not even a coach’s statement could divert attention away.