The hot topic of the 2022 Columbus Crew season hasn’t been the 10 goals scored in four matches. It hasn’t even been that the Black & Gold haven’t given up a single goal in the run of play. The topic on a lot of supporters’ minds is set pieces.
These aren’t the set pieces that Lucas Zelarayán is curling past opposing goalkeepers either — although supporters may dream fondly of those. Columbus’ set piece defending is what’s jumped out as a concern going into the Crew’s week off from league competition.
In four matches, the Black & Gold have given up five goals, all from set pieces. After conceding up a penalty kick in the early minutes against the San Jose Earthquakes in the second match of the season, the last four finishes all came from corner kicks and free kicks.
In a 1-1 draw against the New York Red Bulls on Sunday, Columbus gave up a goal in the 84th minute. Off a corner, center back Aaron Long and substitute forward Tom Barlow got on the end of a ball pinging off both Crew defenders and Red Bulls alike, eventually getting past goalkeeper Eloy Room.
On the backline for that goal, plus two goals at the end of the away match against the Quakes, was midfielder Darlington Nagbe. After scoring the match-tying goal in the final breath of the game, Nagbe was asked about his position on the backline and if it allows him to see anything unique that the Crew could clean up in the team’s set piece defending.
Was it an unmarked player? Were the Black & Gold players not getting prepared quick enough for the in-swinging cross? Were jumps not timed well enough to stop an opposing player?
It was none of the above.
“They had a lot of set pieces this game, so I thought we were great on most of them,” said Nagbe. “All of them except one. For me, that’s just that’s them being opportunistic and taking advantage of that little opportunity they had. But I thought the rest of them were excellent.”
New York had six corners overall, and three free kicks. On all but one, the Crew was effective defending. On that corner, the Red Bulls’ two largest outfield players made diagonal runs through the penalty area.
A lot of things could have happened differently for the Black & Gold. Room could have charged the ball and attempted to punch it away. One of the few Columbus players in the penalty box could have stood in the way of the two New York players involved in the goal, which could have also resulted in a foul against the Crew considering their movement.
Either way, none of those things happened and Columbus went down a goal. The set piece was deflating in an otherwise strong Black & Gold performance. Strong not in the number of goals scored or chances finished but in how the Crew broke down a Red Bulls’ side that focuses on defense and pressing.
There was another reason the performance was strong: Columbus’ fight. For the third match in a row, the Black & Gold came back from a deficit and added points in the standings. Comebacks in three straight matches where the Crew went down a goal on a self-inflicted defensive lapse.
If the set pieces had been corrected earlier, Columbus has 12 points from the first four matches. In 2021, the Black & Gold don’t come back in three straight games. That isn’t lost on the team.
“I think we grew from last season,” said Nagbe. “I think if things don’t go your way, those are just opportunities to learn from them and get better.”
That growth idea isn’t lost on head coach Caleb Porter either. After Sunday’s draw, Porter said that even if the Crew lost, the performance was great from Columbus for how the team wore down its opponent.
Porter has also reiterated the positives of no defensive lapses in the run of play, averaging two points per game and scoring at a high level multiple times recently. But there’s another aspect where Porter sees a need for improvement. Something that moves the Black & Gold to another level.
“We have to be a little more cutthroat and punish teams, especially on the road, because you’re not going to get as many chances,” said Porter.
Columbus had chances to win at Red Bull Arena. Substitute forward Gyasi Zardes had one high percentage chance on goal in the 65th minute. In the 78th minute, winger Derrick Etienne Jr. had a breakaway but was saved by goalkeeper Carlos Coronel after a weak attempt. Both of these were big misses, and both were chances to move away from a focus on set piece defending as the key issue.
The Crew is not close to perfect. There’s room for improvement on dead ball service into the penalty box. That’s not a question. The question is why isn’t the fight and growth of this team in 2022 more on top of supporters’ minds?
Porter and the Black & Gold have 30 matches to prove that set piece defending is a worry of the past and that this team is ready for the future.