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What We Learned: Crew vs. Toronto FC

The Black & Gold continue to give a larger sample size about this team with each passing game.

Ralph Schudel - Massive Report

The Columbus Crew made another statement in the young 2022 Major League Soccer season on Saturday. The Black & Gold earned a 2-1 win against Toronto FC to move to 2-0-1 on the year, grabbing their first points against an Eastern Conference foe and taking a 1-0 lead in the race for the Trillium Cup.

For the second time in two weeks, the Crew gave up a first half goal to fall behind 1-0 but was able to come back to take the lead in the second half. This time, Columbus did not concede late and was able to hang on to all three points against TFC.

A third game of the season against a rival gave more information about the current top team in MLS. Let’s take a look at what we learned from the win versus Toronto.

The Crew is building a strong mentality

Last week in this piece, we asked about the mentality of the Black & Gold after a 3-3 draw against a 10-man San Jose Earthquakes side. While the team showed the ability to overcome an early deficit on the road, Columbus collapsed late and allowed a rare win away from home to become a draw. But the way the players responded in this game shows that the mental makeup of the group is moving in the right direction, if it’s not already there.

Despite being back at Lower.com Field, it wouldn’t have been inconceivable for the Crew players to allow last week’s final 10 minutes or so to stick in their heads. For a team with a weaker mentality, two dropped points could have become more.

But this year’s Black & Gold showed again the ability to fight back after conceding and this week held on to a late lead, nearly building on the two second half goals scored by Lucas Zelarayan and Derrick Etienne Jr. — both of whom made the MLS Team of the Week. Even after TFC went up 1-0 after just 14 minutes, the Columbus players kept their heads. There never was any notice of panic from the players who just kept playing.

Ideally, the Crew does what the team did in Week 1 and starts scoring first again and then building on that lead so comebacks aren’t necessary, but that won’t happen every game. The fact that this team has shown it can handle adversity — both in a game and from one game to the next and bounce back — will be important and something we didn’t see from last year’s Black & Gold side.

The Columbus offense is going to be hard to stop

Head coach Caleb Porter really pulled a fast one on fans and media alike in the preseason when he mentioned that he didn’t believe his Crew team would be high scoring when compared with some of the other offenses in MLS. It was easy to believe at the time, as the goals weren’t coming in the preseason games that were streamed.

Well, through the first three games of 2022, the goal faucet is turned all the way on and the finishes are coming fast. Only Austin FC has scored more goals (10) than the Black & Gold (9) through three games this year. There is still plenty of time this season for Porter to be right and the Columbus goals to stop flowing, but even if the team slows down its offensive production some (as it did Saturday), there are still enough attacking weapons for this group to be dangerous.

Zealaryan is playing at an MVP level and already has more goals (4) than 14 MLS teams. Etienne has two goals and two assists in three games. And while his career history doesn’t show he can maintain this pace, the winger is playing with more confidence than opposing teams have ever seen. Add in that forwards Miguel Berry and Gyasi Zardes have only started to get involved in the production, Luis Daiz already had a goal, Yaw Yeboah continues to adjust to a new league and Alexandru Matan has played just two minutes and you can start to see why it looks more like Porter was pulling everyone’s leg than really believing this offense didn’t have the ability to score at a high level.

Set pieces are a problem

It’s often hard to make sweeping judgments about a team after just a three-game sample size and that’s why stories like this often have incorrect assessments of teams so early in the season. But set piece defending is a problem for the Crew, at least at the moment, and has already cost this team three times this year.

The Black & Gold have given up all three conceded goals this season from set pieces. Twice last week, the Earthquakes scored from a set piece. Porter said Columbus spent this week working on how they want to defend free kicks and corner kicks, yet it was another set piece from which Toronto scored the Reds’ lone goal of the game on Saturday.

In this instance, Berry’s header did not clear the penalty box and while multiple Crew players swarmed the TFC attackers as the ball fell, none could get a touch or make a tackle to clear. The ball was sent wide and back into the 18-yard box where Jesus Jimenez hardly had to jump to head the ball in the back of the net. The likes of Artur, Milos Degenek and Darlington Nagbe did a lot of watching and not a lot of reacting on the play and it allowed for an easy finish on the secondary ball from the corner.

Fortunately for Columbus, set pieces are something that can be cleaned up. While one would hope one week of practice is enough time to address something that cost the team two points in the last game, Porter will certainly be taking a longer look at what’s going wrong on these goals and hammer home that it must be better from his players. The Black & Gold certainly don’t want to become known as a team that concedes easily on set pieces and, maybe even more so, don’t want to begin to believe that themselves.