The Columbus Crew wasn’t surprised by how Saturday’s game against Nashville SC played out at Lower.com Field. The Crew knew how the visitors would play based on watching film and facing Nashville four times over the last two years.
Columbus was aware that, playing on the road, Nashville would come in and sit back. The visitors wanted to make the game ugly and frustrate their opponent, especially knowing that this is a Black & Gold side that prefers to play free-flowing soccer.
That is, in fact, what happened.
“I think it’s a frustrating game because it played out exactly the way they wanted it to play out,” head coach Caleb Porter said after the match. “And we’ve seen them do that time and again on the road and they’re the best in the league at sitting in a low block and making life difficult and that’s why they had 18 draws last year.”
What the Crew didn’t anticipate was too much disappointing play in the opening 30 minutes and Nashville taking advantage of one mistake at the back to grab a goal in what ended as a 1-0 loss for Columbus.
The Black & Gold had chances early to take the lead. Forward Gyasi Zardes, making his first start of the year, couldn’t get the right redirect on a cross in the opening minutes. Playmaker Lucas Zelarayan, who was questionable coming into the match after a knee injury suffered two weeks ago, fired a good shot on frame that was saved by Nashville goalkeeper Joe Willis.
But after the first 10 minutes of the match, the away side settled in and began to cause issues on the other end. Although they often pushed forward with just their three attackers, Nashville created the better of the chances before and shortly after the lone goal.
That goal, which came from a cross that was not contested, was the first from open play the Crew has conceded in 2022. Left back Pedro Santos’ slip at the back post was costly as Alex Muyl saw his uncontested header ping into the net off the back post.
“We knew they would sit in, try and pinch a goal somehow, off a counter or set piece or a cross,” Porter said. “They found that goal early. I thought it was very unlucky; Pedro slipped. If he doesn’t slip, I don’t think they score… And now, they can sit in the entire game and you saw in the second half, they’re very good at just kind of killing the game and slowing the tempo and finding a way to get three points ugly. You’ve got to give credit to them and it’s not the first time they’ve done that.”
At halftime, Porter made adjustments that changed the game. Any momentum Nashville had going into the break from the goal was negated as Columbus looked to create more space with wingers running behind the visitor’s wing backs, opening opportunities for Zelarayan and the Black & Gold’s fullbacks to get in more dangerous spots than in the opening 45 minutes.
When the goal still didn’t come, Porter went to his bench, bringing in Miguel Berry for Zardes up top and Yaw Yeboah for Derrick Etiennne Jr. on the wing. While Porter liked what Zardes and Etienne gave the Crew offensively when the match was 0-0, he felt the creative play of Berry and Yeboah would help open things up with Nashville sitting all 11 players behind the ball, at times all 11 in the 18-yard box.
“I thought the game changed a little bit when we made a few subs,” the head coach said. “We were able to kind of play into Miggy a little bit more and link up central with some combination play. I thought our movement of our wingers was a bit better behind the line, which opened up pockets.”
Despite a free header from Berry that went wide and a free kick from Zelarayan that all of Lower.com Field thought was headed for the top corner of the net – it just missed the target – no goal came. The chances were there with 19 shots to Nashville’s six, but too many opportunities went begging.
Despite the first home loss for Columbus this year, Porter was ultimately pleased with his team’s performance after reviewing the film. Postgame, the head coach explained that the Black & Gold were the better team, but drove home that point even stronger when speaking on Tuesday.
“It’s easy when you lose a game to feel like you failed and when you win a game to feel like you succeeded,” Porter said. “But there’s much to improve in every game when we win or lose. I think we did a lot right in the game. The analytics show that.
“It was just a game where we didn’t find a goal. That happens sometimes. Do we need to be cleaner in those positions? Yes. Do we need to, at times, show more quality on that final pass and the finish? Yes. But we did not struggle to break down the low block. We got into good spots… We had enough chances to score and we played well enough to win the game.”
Taking a big-picture approach, as Porter often does, this game was an unfortunate result, but not a poor performance. The Crew had every right to be disappointed, not because the team was outplayed on its home field, but rather that the group couldn’t find the goal to change the complexion of the match.
If anything, this game showed that Columbus is one of the better teams in MLS in creating dangerous chances, doing so against one of the soundest defensive teams in the league, but the Black & Gold need to finish at a higher level than the last three contests where the team has scored just three goals after seven in the first two matches.
“We are creating really good chances,” Porter said. “We’re getting in great spots to score goals and, again, it doesn’t always tell the story, but it is the truth and facts. I think we lead the league in expected goals. So we are doing a lot right. This is the game where we didn’t find the goal and obviously it’s easy to say we struggled and we failed. That’s not the case. We played extremely well. We just didn’t find the goal.”