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What We Learned: Crew vs. Sporting Kansas City

The Black & Gold finally got a result to analyze.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Sporting Kansas City Peter Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time in over a month, the Columbus Crew played a game and didn’t come out with a loss. The Crew battled for a 0-0 draw on the road against Sporting Kansas City, taking home the team’s third road point of the year.

While the group certainly would have preferred a win, and to score a goal after going now four straight Major League Soccer games without finishing, getting a draw on the road was a step in the right direction to end a four-game losing streak in all competitions. The Black & Gold recognized the importance of getting a result, altering tactics to help ensure the team did not concede.

With a slightly more positive outcome in the books, let’s take a look at what we learned from the tie against Kansas City.

The Crew can be tactically flexible

Saturday’s game wasn’t the first time Columbus has changed formation or philosophy, but it was the first time it was this noticeable from the start of the game. Head coach Caleb Porter has altered his look at times throughout games — most recognizably going to a 4-4-2 in the second half against Orlando City SC two games ago — but this week he made the change from the start.

With playmaker Lucas Zelarayan out, the Crew came out in a 4-3-3 look, a slight change from the team’s typical 4-2-3-1. This got three central midfielders on the field together, bringing Aidan Morris in to play with Darlington Nagbe and Artur, and helping the Black & Gold get a bit more control in the center of the park without a true No. 10.

Along with the formation change, Columbus went away from the team’s normal approach of looking to possess the ball and break down an opponent. Porter was fine with Kansas City keeping the ball — the home side had 63 percent possession — and sitting a bit deeper to not allow much. This was effective, as Sporting had just three shots in the game and an expected goals of just 0.28.

And while the Crew was content with playing more defensive than the team would in many games, they didn’t just park the bus and sit with 10 guys behind the ball on the road. The Black & Gold had nine shots and an expected goals of 0.72. The team wasn’t happy that it didn’t score but did like that a change in style allowed for Columbus to flip the script a bit and start to move toward positive momentum.

James Igbekeme could have a role for the Crew

When it was announced in January that the Black & Gold made a move to loan Igbekeme from Spanish Segunda División side Real Zaragoza for the 2022 season, it wasn’t seen as a key piece for the year. Through the first couple of months of the season, it seemed the Nigerian might just play a bit part, coming off the bench in five games and playing just 88 total minutes.

On Saturday, however, Igbekeme made his first start for the Crew after playing well in the U.S. Open Cup game four days prior with Porter deploying him on the left wing in the 4-3-3 instead of his normal central midfield position. While it wasn’t a perfect performance from Igbekeme, he did show some positives that could be useful going forward.

Igbekeme put forth the kind of effort, playing all 90 minutes and putting his body on the line on more than one occasion to help preserve the shutout, that this team has lacked at times this season. He was good with the ball and helped create the few chances the Black & Gold did have while connecting on 15 of his 16 passes.

Columbus has depth in central midfield with Artur, Moris and Nagbe, and all three continue to play well, so Igbekeme would have to beat out one of them. But he showed he can play more than just one role, which certainly could be useful for Porter as he looks for different ways his team can play to be successful.

The Crew is going to have to grind out results for the next two months

If you weren’t a fan of the Black & Gold’s style of play against Kansas City, the next couple of months may be difficult to watch after the trade of forward Gyasi Zardes. While the U.S. international wasn’t on his best form to start the 2022 season, he at least gave another option other than Miguel Berry.

Saturday marked the eighth game Berry has played this year for Columbus and the third-year forward has just one goal. That came in the season opener. Berry has had chances to add to his account, including against Sporting, but his second season as a regular contributor at the MLS level has not gone as well as he hoped and that’s part of the reason the Crew will be after a Designated Player striker.

The return of Zelarayan, whenever that is after the playmaker missed Saturday’s game with a lingering knee injury, will help the offense. But unless Berry or wingers Yaw Yeboah or Derrick Etienne Jr. all of a sudden get hot and start scoring, the Black & Gold will have to play well defensively, not give up a goal on a mistake and hope to find the back of the net enough to secure points.

It is not expected that Columbus will get a deal for a DP striker done before the primary transfer window closes on May 4, so the team is likely to play a less attractive, but more useful, brand of soccer until it can add a quality finisher in the summer transfer window that opens in early July.