Entering the 80th minute of Saturday’s match against the San Jose Earthquakes, the Columbus Crew was in the midst of a fantastic start to the 2022 season. Against the Vancouver Whitecaps, a 2021 Western Conference MLS Cup playoff team, Columbus scored four times. On Saturday, San Jose went up early on a penalty kick but the Crew fought back to take a two-goal lead.
For a team that averaged 1.35 goals per game last year, seven goals in two games gave the appearance of a new Black & Gold. It wasn’t just a good start to the season, it was Columbus’ best start ever offensively, breaking the previous record of five goals through the first two games of the year.
In the eyes of Crew supporters, it felt like a motivated team reaching expectations, a team that was casting out evil spirits that plagued the team throughout 2021. In actuality, it was a roller coaster car clicking up the hill.
The collapse began with 80th minute fouls in the Black & Gold defensive end. Up two goals, Columbus gave the ball away in the team’s offensive half of the field. Click. In the 83rd minute, a Crew turnover turned into a foul outside of the penalty box to keep San Jose from running in on goal unopposed. Click. From the wide free kick, Columbus gave up a goal. Click.
Entering an announced four minutes of stoppage time, the Black & Gold give up a corner over five minutes after the end of the 90-minute regular time. Click. Then, as the coaster car reaches the top of the hill, Francisco Calvo headed in his second set piece goal of the match, ending the game in a 3-3 road draw.
All hands in the car were up, and people were screaming.
Teams don’t want their seasons to be a roller coaster. The top teams in Major League Soccer prefer a more flat terrain where the highs aren’t too high and the lows aren’t too low. At the bottom of the table, it’s the downhill portion stretched across 34 matchdays.
Unlike a roller coaster, Saturday’s screaming came in the form of frustration. Supporters saw a lead slip away and it brought back feelings of a post-MLS Cup slump of a 2021 season. Scroll the Crew’s hashtag of Twitter and the 3-3 draw elicited many references to last year, but through two matches, this team is not the same as seasons before, including 2020. It’s better. Not just offensively either.
“They had nothing in terms of chance creation,” said head coach Caleb Porter of the Earthquakes on Tuesday. “Their expected goals were essentially two dead balls and a penalty kick.”
San Jose had one shot on goal from yards outside of the penalty area that didn’t challenge goalkeeper Eloy Room. It’s the same performance, in the run of play, that the Crew had against Vancouver. At the season opener, the Whitecaps had no shots on goal. Zero.
An argument about being down a man in both matches is fair, but watching each match, the Black & Gold were tactically in the driver’s seat before each red card. Even the cards themselves came off outstanding play from Columbus. Midfielder Darlington Nagbe is a magnet to pressure and earning free kicks in the middle of the field, although Saturday’s boot to the leg isn’t how challenges are supposed to go. Against the Whitecaps, new winger Yaw Yeboah was pulled back on what could have been a breakaway third goal.
Leading into Saturday’s home match against Toronto FC, Porter wasn’t overhauling set piece defending or going through extra set piece drills after what happened against the Quakes.
“There were several moments that we went through, none of them had to do with our setup or our shape. It was more of game management,” said Porter.
That game management focused on improving decision-making when a team is up late in a match and fixing small mistakes that lead to bigger chances. For example, maintaining possession late instead of trying to take an extra shot, limiting turnovers and having teammates in better positions to support if a turnover does happen. Avoiding fouls against a team that’s in a position where they’re looking for free kicks to put pressure in the penalty box is also important
Set piece defending doesn’t need changed. Columbus uses a makring formation where seven players are assigned to an opposing player with two center backs handling zones. In 2021, the Black & Gold gave up only three goals from corners and free kicks into the penalty area using this strategy.
It’s those small decisions that don’t necessarily show up on a stat sheet where Columbus is focusing early in the season. Saturday’s match, with all its frustrations, may not be a sign that the team is regressing to the form of its injury-plagued 2021. Maybe Saturday’s draw was a good thing?
There are two fewer points in the standings for the Crew, but if the Black & Gold continue the offensive and defensive prowess shown so far in most of the two matches in 2022, there are a lot of possibilities.
“Sometimes a lesson like that early in the year helps you,” said Porter. “I think it will help this group manage games better.”
Also, sometimes roller coasters can be fun after that first hill.