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What We Learned: Crew vs. San Jose Earthquakes

There was a lot to take away from the Black & Gold’s comeback and collapse in Week 2 of the MLS season.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at San Jose Earthquakes Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

The Columbus Crew traveled out west for the team’s first road game of the 2022 season against the San Jose Earthquakes this weekend and the Black & Gold appeared to be on their way to a second straight impressive victory to start the year. Leading 3-1 after giving up an early penalty kick, the Crew allowed two goals in the final six minutes plus stoppage time to settle for a 3-3 draw on the road.

In most circumstances, getting a point away from home in Major League Soccer, especially for Columbus, a side that has struggled on the road in recent seasons, is satisfactory. But given that the Black & Gold were up by two so late in the game, conceding — and the way the team conceded — almost makes the trip to San Jose feel like a loss.

It is early in the 2022 season and we’re still learning about this year’s Crew team. Saturday’s game taught us plenty. Let’s reflect.

The Crew’s mental makeup is still a work in progress

Saturday’s game could have gone a number of different ways for the visitors. After giving up a penalty kick in the first 10 minutes of the match, the Columbus players could have wilted and allowed the Earthquakes to take control of the contest at their home stadium. After all, this is a side that won just three road games the last two seasons combined.

Instead, the Black & Gold kept their cool, continued to play and equalized before halftime. The Crew then kept their foot on the gas for most of the second half, getting the go-ahead goal and the important third goal that seemed to put the game out of reach. It takes fight to come from behind on the road in this league and Columbus showed this team has that.

But then the last six-plus minutes happened where the Black & Gold committed an unnecessary foul in a bad spot on the field and didn’t defend well on either late set piece. On both of San Jose’s goals, an attacker got a free header on the ball and put it in the back of the net.

In order to win games on the road, something this team wants and needs to do more frequently this season, the concentration can’t wane before the 90 minutes (and in this case, six minutes of stoppage time) are up. That’s how opponents get back in games and how the Crew went from getting six points to start the year to just four.

It was great to see Columbus find its way to a two-goal lead after going down early, but this group of players must learn to finish the job, especially when away from home.

Lucas Zelarayan remains one of MLS’s best players

The Black & Gold’s playmaker was honored last week on the MLS Team of the Week for his one-goal, one-assist performance to open the season. In all honesty, however, Zelarayan didn’t have his best game in the 4-0 opening win against the Vancouver Whitecaps and wasn’t even the Crew’s best player — maybe not even in the top two on that day. But that speaks to the ability of the Argentine to end up with those stats when not at his best.

Against the Earthquakes, Zelarayan played near perfectly. He scored two great goals from outside the penalty box, his 12th and 13th from those positions since coming to MLS, twice as many as any other player over that time. He also pulled the strings of the Columbus attack, directing the orchestra in a magnificent way. Zelarayan completed 93 percent of his 43 passes, including four key passes and four spot on crosses.

Although he’s won multiple individual awards in his now two-plus seasons with the Black & Gold, including being named MLS Newcomer of the Year and MLS Cup MVP in 2020, Zelarayan doesn’t receive the national recognition that he should. While there are plenty of other big names across the league and players in bigger markets that make more money, it’s hard to argue that any MLS player makes a bigger impact on his team than Zelarayan.

He proved that again on Saturday.

Derrick Etienne Jr. has a chance at a break out season

Coming into the year, Etienne talked about wanting to start the season better than he’s done in the past and be more consistent. Entering his seventh season in MLS and third with the Crew, the 25 year old has shown flashes of the player he could be — including good performances late in each of the last two years — but needed to do it throughout the course of the season.

It’s only two games, but there’s an argument to be made that Etienne has been Columbus’ most consistent performer, especially on the attacking side of the field, so far in 2022.

The Haitian international took his first real chance of the season to open his scoring account last week against Vancouver and was dangerous throughout that game, saying he felt he should have had a few more goals. On Saturday, he added to his statistical production, playing a one-time half volley back into the six-yard box after a corner kick to set up Gyasi Zardes’ goal. He continued to be active and was involved in a number of the Black & Gold’s attacks.

Head coach Caleb Porter said last week that Etienne is playing with confidence and that while he would have to continue to earn it, the left winger position is his at this time. Based on the opening two games, it does not appear Etienne will be giving that spot up any time soon.

We might have been too quick to heap praise on the Crew’s new players

Following the 4-0 win against the Whitecaps to open the 2022 season, there were plenty of good feelings around the Black & Gold. It was hard to say a negative thing about the opening performance and the players who played in it. But maybe we were too quick to make assessments.

Massive Report wrote, and rightfully so, about the impressive performances of Columbus’ two opening-day debutants, winger Yaw Yeboah and central defender Milos Degenek, players that had an impact on the first game. But any conclusion that these two were going to seamlessly adjust to MLS and not miss a beat with the Crew were quickly put to bed on Saturday.

Yeboah, who was one of the attacking stars of the first game with his willingness to get on the ball, take on defenders and create for himself and his teammates, was nearly invisible against the Earthquakes. Despite playing 89 minutes, the Ghanian had 34 touches of the ball, the fewest of any Black & Gold starting field player other than forward Miguel Berry, and did little with them with two shots off target and 22 passes.

Similarly, Degenek had a bright debut. While the Australian wasn’t asked to do too much against Vancouver, he didn’t have a step wrong in his Columbus debut. In his follow up performance, however, Degenek stepped wrong in the opening 10 minutes, giving up a penalty kick that gave San Jose the early 1-0 lead. He then nearly gave up a second in the second half but was able to avoid the referee’s whistle. Degenek did not make a single tackle or interception, despite playing the full game and had one clearance.

This is not to say that Yeboah and Degenek were bad signings or that they both won’t go on to be very productive players for the Crew this year and beyond. But any conclusions after one game were a bit premature after each player’s second performance.