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What We Learned: Crew vs. Detroit City FC — U.S. Open Cup

The Black & Gold drop out of the Open Cup in the third round after losing on the road.

MLS: US Open Cup-Columbus Crew at Detroit City FC Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

I want to start this collum with a little self-reflection, something everyone should do from time to time, before we dive into reflecting on the Columbus Crew’s 2-1 U.S. Open Cup loss to Detroit City FC on Tuesday night. If you were a Crew fan on Twitter during the match, you probably saw my tweet about angry Crew fans that caused quite a stir and I want to clarify and apologize for that. If you don’t care about any of the Twitter drama, feel free to skip the next few paragraphs.

First, as I later explained but things had already gone off the rails, my intent with the tweet wasn’t to target all Crew fans who were angry. Twitter can be a pretty toxic place when things are going wrong and after three straight MLS defeats and a 2-1 deficit against a USL Championship side, Crew Twitter had some pretty extreme takes floating around during the match. These were the tweets I saw and referenced.

What my tweet did was make an angry group angrier because I phrased it poorly. As some of you may know or may have noticed, I haven’t done nearly as much Crew coverage this year and have stepped back into the world of fandom when it comes to the Black & Gold while others step up for Massive Report. Part of that decision meant tweeting less, or not at all, during games, a personal rule I didn’t adhere to during the Open Cup match and this didn’t help matters.

For those that I upset because my tweet read that Crew fans shouldn’t be angry after the recent results, I apologize. That was not my intent as many of you are rational people who are frustrated. I generalized a group based on some with more irrational takes and that’s something I shouldn’t do. That’s on me.

Now, let’s turn to Columbus getting bounced from the Open Cup and what we learned from the game.

Offense is a problem

This is something Black & Gold fans have seen over the previous three games. After a hot start to the year — seven goals in the first two matches — the well has dried up on the offensive end.

Head coach Caleb Porter believed, as did others, that once the Crew scored, the floodgates would open and the goals would come more easily. On Tuesday night at Keyworth Stadium, not only did Columbus score, but the team scored first, another key that’s been pointed to by Porter for success. The issue was, against a USL Championship side, the goals did not keep coming.

Gyasi Zardes’ seventh minute penalty kick wasn’t met with more goals from the striker, one who should be doing everything he can to score with a potential spot on the U.S.’s World Cup roster as a carrot at the end of the stick that is this season. In fact, despite having the lead, it looked a lot like the first 30 minutes of the Crew’s recent games against Nashville SC and Orlando City SC, a lot of getting in decent spots but without any final product from Columbus.

After playing well enough to deserve the halftime lead, the Black & Gold’s positive play fell off in the second half. It can be argued that Zardes should have earned a penalty kick, but other than that, there weren’t many chances created until after Detroit scored. By the end of the game, it was panic mode and another bad result, all because the offense still struggles to put the ball in the net, even against perceived inferior opposition.

The answers didn’t appear off the bench

There’s been a lot of talk by Columbus fans that Porter needs to make a change or two. The question then is, what changes should be made? If we all agree that the back four and the three central midfielders have played well for the most part, the most obvious changes would come up top. But no one in Tuesday’s game did anything to earn a spot in those positions.

While Zardes did get a goal, he continued to be wasteful in front of the net. The forward didn’t look confident other than on his penalty kick attempt and did little to show that with his current form, he is an upgrade over Miguel Berry. It’s possible with time to get into a rhythm, Zardes could find that form that made him the team’s top scorer in all but one of the seasons he’s been with the club, and maybe that’s a direction Porter goes for the next few games, but this was an opportunity for a U.S. international to assert himself and he did not.

On the wings, Derrick Etienne and Yaw Yeboah have been inconsistent, to say the least. But Alexandru Matan and Erik Hurtado did little in the way of making their cases to be starters against Detroit. Both players had moments of positivity — Hurtado won the ball back and played the pass into the 18-yard box that led to the penalty kick, while Matan showed his ability on the ball at points — but neither player dazzled enough to make Porter say, “he should definitely be playing above the current starters.”

This leaves Porter and his staff in a difficult spot. It’s becoming more clear that the front three of Etienne, Berry and Yeboah isn’t the answer. Even when the team was scoring goals, only Etienne was a regular contributor and his career numbers don’t indicate that was going to continue. Berry is still figuring out what it takes to play regularly at the MLS level. Both players are likely important backups on the top teams in the league. Yeboah is still a mystery given he’s adjusting to a new league, but the Crew doesn’t have the luxury of waiting around to see if he is a bust as a signing or not.

The Black & Gold’s best winger remains Pedro Santos, but the Portuguese, who turns 34 on Friday, is currently the team’s starting left back. Given that backup left back Will Sands didn’t marvel against Detroit, perhaps that is an issue to address in the summer transfer window, so Santos can be back to the wing, but there are still too many games between now and then for that to be a major consideration.

The Open Cup couldn’t be a priority for the Crew this year

There is an argument every season about the Open Cup and how much effort MLS teams should put into these games, especially in the early rounds. Unlike some of these cup competitions in Europe, there is not the same prestige and reward for winning the Open Cup. Nearly all MLS teams would admit that making the playoffs and pushing for an MLS Cup is higher up on the list of priorities.

But this season, much of the emphasis on the third-round game was decided ahead of time for the Black & Gold. Given that the team just played one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference in Orlando on Saturday and has to turn around and travel to Sporting Kansas City next Saturday, Porter had no choice but to play a different team than the one that took the field at Lower.com Field this past weekend. Those that played the majority of the minutes against the Lions were just getting done with recovery Monday and couldn’t have given another 60 minutes or so the next day. The fact that Porter elected to play Etienne, Berry and Yeboah at all was based on a need for these players to find something positive to build upon.

Should Columbus have still won the game against Detroit in the third round of the Open Cup? Absolutely. But there wasn’t much else Porter could do in terms of his lineup selections and this made it more difficult to get through based on who was available.