For the second time in two games away from Lower.com Field in 2022, the Columbus Crew went on the road on Sunday and came away with the draw. Unlike the 3-3 tie with the San Jose Earthquakes two weeks prior, it was the Crew who snatched a point late, thanks to a Darlington Nagbe stoppage time equalizer that secured a 1-1 draw.
While the Black & Gold no longer sit atop the Major League Soccer or Eastern Conference standings, Columbus remains one of the league’s best teams through the first four weeks of the season. The Crew is one of six teams yet to lose this year, a promising start after missing out on the MLS Cup playoffs in 2021.
Facing the team’s toughest test of the year, once again on the road, was an opportunity to further learn about this Black & Gold side. Let’s take a look at our major takeaways.
The Crew has a forward problem.
No, this is not where we will discuss the reports from last week that Columbus was open to trading forward Gyasi Zardes after starting Miguel Berry in each of the first three games and then, to some extent, debunked by head coach Caleb Porter. Although it does have to do with that topic.
Through four games this year, the Black & Gold aren’t getting enough production out of their two forwards. While Berry opened the year with a goal against the Vancouver Whitecaps, he is yet to score a second this season. In fact, Berry has just three shots since that Vancouver opener, one on target.
Zardes, albeit in significantly fewer minutes, has also not produced at a high level. He too has one goal — scored against the Earthquakes in the second match of the season — on four total shots and one on target.
There is certainly an argument to be made that Zardes would be more productive as the starter and therefore is not producing as much because he is in an unfamiliar role, whereas four of Berry’s nine career MLS goals have come off the bench and his skill set is more in line with a player a team brings on late when in need of a goal, but we’ll defer to Porter on that one. The point is, these forwards need to be scoring goals, especially if Lucas Zelarayan — who has four goals on the season — is going to miss any significant time after leaving the game with a late knee injury.
For Berry, it’s about being more active and finding ways to get in better scoring positions. He often remains in more of the same areas of the field, which makes him easier to defend. Smarter runs are something that will come with time, but the young player is expected to make an impact now.
When it comes to Zardes, it’s about finishing his chances. Against both Toronto FC last week and versus the Red Bulls, he should have added to his tally. Zardes is where he needs to be — he’s actually all over the field — but needs to put the ball in the net.
This performance was closer to what Porter discussed preseason
Last week in this piece, we discussed if Porter was pulling fans’ legs in the preseason when he said the offense wouldn’t be as potent as other teams in MLS and the Crew would be a team that would often grind out games. After seven goals in the first two games, the Black & Gold look more like the team the head coach described.
Being on the road against one of the best defensive teams in the league, it’s not a surprise Columbus didn’t open the floodgates. New York handled the Crew attack well for the most part and the good chances the team did create — the Zardes opportunity and Derrick Etienne Jr.’s breakaway attempt — were not converted.
To Porter’s point, Columbus does not have elite finishers. Zardes, despite being the team’s leading scorer in three of his first four years with the club, has often been criticized for his touch and conversion rate. Etienne has started the season well but doesn’t have a track record of scoring goals. Black & Gold fans are still waiting for Yaw Yeboah, Luis Diaz and Alexandru Matan to get scoring.
In fact, the only member of the Crew attack that has proven to be able to score at a consistent level is Zelarayan, but his goals tend to be of the magnificent variety, which isn’t always reliable. This match was an example of that.
Again, to Porter’s point, despite not having lethal finishers against New York, Columbus did enough to get a point on the road and, had the team finished just one of its chances earlier in the match, arguably should have gotten three.
The Black & Gold could be without Zelarayan for some games
As mentioned above, Zelarayan left the game with a knee injury in the 89th minute, which has already seen him withdraw from the two Armenian National Team friendlies he was called in for over the international break this week. While it’s hard to tell exactly what happened when Aaron Long collided with Zelarayan from behind late in the game, the Crew’s No. 10 seemed to be in some pain.
The fact that he did come back in the game, even if just for a couple of minutes could be viewed as a positive sign, but then you might remember Frankie Hejduk playing a half of soccer on a torn ACL. The good news is that Zelarayan celebrated by standing and moving off the bench when Columbus scored the late equalizer after being helped off the field and, Massive Report was told, was in good spirits in the locker room postgame.
If Zelarayan has to miss any time, this is a big blow for the Black & Gold. As has been detailed throughout the start of this year and over the last two seasons, Zelarayan is the Crew’s best player and has started this year on a tear with four goals and two assists.
Porter said in the preseason that Columbus worked on multiple formations the team could use during the season, whether tactically or because of injury. Porter mentioned having different ways to play when Zelarayan is not in the lineup as at least one of those formations.
The team will not play next weekend, but resumes the season against Nashville SC on April 2. Even if Zelarayan misses a game or two, fans might get to see what Porter was referring to earlier than expected.
Columbus become road warriors?
If we’re being fair, the Crew has just seven wins away from home since Porter took over in 2019, including the start to this season, so this may be a bit premature. But the first two Black & Gold games away from Lower.com Field have yielded impressive results.
While the San Jose Earthquakes aren’t exactly world-beaters (starting the year 0-3-1), a trip across the country to California is never one to anticipate a full three points, and Columbus was up 3-1 late. Going to Red Bull Arena is also not an easy place to play, yet the Crew found a way to get a late point there as well.
The Black & Gold are already almost to one-third of its total road points from a year ago, so things are going well.