After a promising start to the 2022 season, the last two weeks haven’t gone the way the Columbus Crew wanted based on the results. Facing two of the better defensive teams in Major League Soccer, the Crew lost 1-0 in game-to-back games, first to Nashville SC at home and then last weekend to the Philadelphia Union on the road.
Both games had their similarities. The Black & Gold made a mistake at the back early on that led directly to a goal from the opponent. After that, Columbus couldn’t find a way to come from behind to get at least a point in either contest.
Despite the first two losses of the year, however, head coach Caleb Porter – and players on the team – remain positive. The fact that the Crew played well in each game, and specifically going to Philadelphia and arguably outplaying one of the best teams in MLS in recent seasons, breeds a level of positivity despite the results.
“We’re a good enough group and we played well enough in both of those games, minus the mistake obviously today from the goal, and then finishing,” Porter said after the loss to the Union. “And so myself, the players were extremely pissed off. Extremely pissed off because it’s another game where it was 19-10 in shots, I think we had 70 percent possession. And this is a good team, and we’re on the road.”
In some seasons, two narrow defeats with positive analytics might have been a moral victory for the Black & Gold. Porter may have used that to try and defend his team and say that things will get better and results will come.
While he does believe the results will turn around, Porter and the team aren’t content with just playing well in back-to-back defeats. Despite Nashville being the best in the league at grinding out results on the road and Philadelphia sitting at or near the top of the Eastern Conference in each of the last three seasons – the Union is currently first in the East – these are the teams Porter wants his side not only playing well against but defeating.
What’s stood in the way of the Crew earning at least two, and maybe six, points these last two weeks, however, is that after a costly mistake, the team couldn’t respond with a goal, or goals, of its own.
“We have high standards,” Porter said. “I think if you’re looking at the bottom line, the last two games, we played very well. And the guys gave a lot. I’m very proud of that. I appreciate everything they gave. I cannot fault the effort. But to win an MLS Cup, to be fighting for the top of the East, we have to be, around goal, more ruthless.”
This may seem obvious. As Porter pointed out, the Black & Gold had 19 shots in each contest but only a total of eight on target. The team is creating chances but not putting them away.
In soccer, if you don’t score goals, you aren’t going to win many matches and Columbus is experiencing that right now.
Part of what will help the Crew start scoring again – remember, this team scored seven goals in the first two games – is the added desire of the attacking players to get the goals. While Porter likes a lot of the traits of his front three, he would like to see them give a bit more to put the ball in the back of the net, because the rest of the attack is there.
“We’re doing a lot of very good things and I told them today that, in my nine years in the league, I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve had a team playing better box to box, both sides of the ball and dominating like we’re dominating,” Porter said. “But giving up the early goal has made life a lot more difficult. And then the last two teams we’ve played are just very good defensive teams. And yet I still think the main thing we’ve got to get right is just the final third, the cross, the runs, the desire, the hunger. And they agree.”
Porter began the week by showing his team clips from the recent defeat where he thinks that desire to score could have been just a little bit better. These both highlighted areas where passes or crosses could be more accurate but also where the team could have better runs, or more runners into the penalty box.
The top scorers in MLS have that need to score goals that the Black & Gold are lacking right now. Josef Martinez, Raul Ruidiaz and Valentín Castellanos have all made their names recently by being bullies in the 18-yard box and finishing chances, even when the pass is not perfect. Carlos Vela and Zlatan Ibrahimovic never were concerned about putting their bodies on the line or going through or over an opponent if it meant scoring a goal.
This is what Porter sees in playmaker Lucas Zelarayan, but would like to see more in other attackers, especially when playing against other good teams.
“I like a lot in Miguel Berry, I like a lot in Derrick Etienne and Yaw Yeboah and Gyasi Zardes. These guys are great guys; they give everything they have,” Porter said. “They have to be nastier and I want to see them putting their bodies on the line a little bit more to score goals. Because when we’re getting crosses, and we’ve got a lot of numbers in the box because we’re down a goal, it’s gonna come through the No. 9 and the weak side winger and the No. 10.
“Lucas has an edge every game to create, to score goals. He’s never happy if he doesn’t score a goal. He’s never happy if our front guys don’t score a goal. But I think we need some of the other guys to have that same standard and that same edge and that same chip on their shoulder to do whatever it takes.”
It’s important to remember that it’s still early in the season and two losses will not dictate the rest of the Crew’s year. Had these games sandwiched two wins where the Black & Gold do find a few goals, the conversation around Columbus is likely rather different.
Remaining positive, Porter is happy that these games happened. While he would have preferred to get results in both contests, he knows that his players have now been tested and know they have to do what it takes when playing any opponent to put the ball in the net because that’s what wins games.
“I liked that we’re playing really good teams because that’s forcing us to be better and to fight more,” the head coach said. “To put our bodies on the line more. To be more precise. To make better runs. All those little details are under the microscope more against the Philadelphia Union and Nashville. So this is going to help us improve.”