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The Crew must continue to adjust with a roster in flux

The Black & Gold have a tough challenge ahead as the team looks for offensive help.

MLS: Orlando City SC at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

The focus for the Columbus Crew entering Saturday’s match against D.C. United at Field is clearer than ever – the team needs to score goals. This was the message of head coach Caleb Porter on Tuesday when speaking to the media. What’s made that focus a little murky are the recent results and the Black & Gold’s roster.

Since the 1-1 draw against the New York Red Bulls in late March, Columbus has scored one goal. This was the only goal scored without midfielder Lucas Zelarayán on the field after he left the match with a knee injury in the 89th minute. That goal also came directly after the injury, with midfielder Darlington Nagbe scoring the match-tying strike at the death of second half stoppage time.

Zelarayán returned two weeks later but didn’t look the same in the three match days that followed. Before the Crew’s trip to Sporting Kansas City last weekend, Porter confirmed that Zelarayán’s injury lingered, leaving him questionable for the match, and ultimately out of the lineup completely.

Then, a few hours later on Friday afternoon, the Black & Gold traded forward Gyasi Zardes to the Colorado Rapids.

In one day, a team that started the year with a lopsided 4-0 victory starred into the face of a four-match MLS regular season losing streak, without a single goal scored, and now down two players known for goal scoring.

Saturday’s match against Kansas City featured a Crew side that came in with the goal of counter attacking. A Columbus team that typically feasts on possession held the ball only for 37 percent of the game but showed great defensive character to earn its second clean sheet of the season.

A question that came from two big roster-shaping events, and the Crew’s scoreless draw, is how will the Black & Gold play going forward? Will Porter plug existing players into his usual game plan? Is Columbus going to bunker down and focus solely on the counter?

“We’ve got to continue to focus on our strengths and right now our strengths are we’re a very good defensive team and we have a good mentality,” said Porter.

The Crew held a Kansas City side to an expected goals of 0.28 on three total shots. This was an impressive display after weeks of being punished for seemingly any defensive mistake. It’s also the play in the midfield that made the defense’s work easier.

In the absence of an offensive facilitator like Zelarayán, Porter shifted to a 4-3-3 formation, Porter called this formation “honest,” after a strong performance by the three-man midfield in Nagbe, Artur and Aidan Morris that made the difference. Each of the three intercepted passes and made it difficult for Sporting to move easily through the middle of the field.

Nagbe’s normal role of facilitating passes from right to left across the field is an asset, but the Ohio native reminds supporters every match where he plays more forward that he’s built for anything that’s needed in the midfield. Nagbe sent in passes that made the Black & Gold’s counter attack dangerous in the first half.

“We have to stick with that, and build from that, and try to pinch a goal,” said Porter.

In the preseason, Porter mentioned that Columbus would be a side that needed to scrap to get results, not scoring among the elite in Major League Soccer. After scoring nine goals in the first three matches, it looked like Porter might have been trying to quell any high expectations. Now, especially with the Crew searching for a new Designated Player at the forward position, it couldn’t hit closer to home.

Saturday’s draw didn’t see the Black & Gold score, but Columbus created chances despite the more defensive approach on the road. Winger Yaw Yeboah and forward Miguel Berry each had a golden chance to put the Crew up in the opening stages of the match, but a frustrating trend of indecisiveness and a lack of confidence continued for the Black & Gold.

“The mindset now is on these three points and scoring goals,” said Porter looking forward to a home game against D.C. this weekend. “I say that again on scoring goals because we’re not doing cartwheels over another game not scoring goals. We’re on a draw, right? But in any season, you gotta stop the bleeding.”

From Porter’s perspective, scoring one goal feels like enough to turn the ship around after four winless performances in MLS play. Saturday’s draw helped slow the downturn of momentum, but that won’t enough be enough back at Field.