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What We Learned: Crew at New York City FC

Another Black & Gold defeat leaves us with plenty to discuss.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at New York City FC Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The Columbus Crew made a trip to the Big Apple over the weekend but did not come home with a positive result. In a battle of the last two MLS Cup champions, it was the most recent winner, New York City FC, who came away with the victory, handing the Black & Gold a 2-0 defeat at Yankee Stadium.

Given the mixed feelings about this game heading into the contest, it was not much of a surprise that Columbus didn’t get a result. But that doesn’t make it any easier for fans to stomach watching their side struggle again away from home.

With that said, this game gave us some new thinking points when talking about the Crew. Let’s take a look at what we learned.

Oftentimes, the better team wins

Upsets are one of fans’ favorite things in sports, unless it’s their team getting upset, but those don’t happen all the time. In fact, more often than not, the better team wins. That was the case on Saturday.

As detailed heading into the game, NYCFC is one of, maybe the, best teams in Major League Soccer. City’s MLS Cup win last year was no fluke, even if the team did finish in fourth place in the Eastern Conference in 2021. The team has talent and depth across the board and recently started to find the form that resulted in the Pidgeons being crowned champion.

Although both goals the Black & Gold conceded were soft, they showed the abilities of this NYCFC side. The quick passing around the penalty box and the comfort of working in tight space on the narrow field at Yankee Stadium were on full display for the opening goal inside 10 minutes. The second goal was the recognition of an opportunity — and a mistake — and the ability to take advantage of that chance.

Despite taking their foot off the gas and allowing the visiting side to climb back into the match a bit after the first goal, City never was out of control in the game, maintaining 54 percent possession. The Crew, meanwhile, was not able to take advantage of anything NYCFC gave up with only eight shots, to NYCFC’s 21, and none on target.

To put it another way, let’s look at player values. While these aren’t always accurate numbers, TransferMarkt gives an idea of what a player is worth. The Black & Gold’s most valuable player, not surprisingly, is Lucas Zelarayan, valued at $8.8 million. The next is Artur, a steep drop in value to $3.85 million. New York City’s highest-valued player is Valentin Castellanos at $13.2 million. City then has three players valued at or higher than Artur.

Following Darlington Nagbe and Milos Degenek, no Columbus player is valued at more than $2 million by TransferMarkt. NYCFC has 11 players valued at over $2 million, a full starting lineup’s worth.

This is not to say that the Crew can’t play better than the team did on Saturday or that this group shouldn’t have performed at a higher level just because of the opposition, and certainly this wasn’t the Black & Gold’s best game. It’s just to make it clear that when it came to the talent on the field at Yankee Stadium, New York City had most of it and that often tells the tale.

The striker is the difference

While Columbus may not have the overall talent of NYCFC, who is owned by City Football Group that also owns English Premier League giants Manchester City, that doesn’t mean the Crew can’t compete with the Pidgeons. Just last year, the season New York City won its first MLS Cup, the Black & Gold went 2-1 against the champions.

Columbus has enough talent to compete in any given game in MLS with the likes of Zelarayan, Nagbe, Artur, Pedro Santos, Jonathan Mensah and Eloy Room. What the Crew lacked in this game was a difference-maker offensively to turn the tide of the match.

In the past, and specifically against NYCFC, Zelarayan has been able to be that player, creating or scoring goals. Nagbe has stepped up as well and forced his will on a game. Neither was able to do that in this game and what the Black & Gold really need is a forward who can change the game.

Just look at what Castellanos did with his goal in the second half. Sure, there were clear issues on the marking by Columbus’ center backs and it led to a breakaway, but Castellanos recognized this opportunity, got in a position to create the chance and, most importantly, finished it for a 2-0 lead for the home team. This is what made him the Golden Boot winner last season.

Go back a week and the New England Revolution just had to float a ball into the center of the penalty area for a 2-1 lead. Adam Buksa did the rest, positioning himself between the Crew’s two center backs and flicking his header over the outstretched arm of a diving Room.

These types of forwards change games and lead to points in the standings. Right now, the Black & Gold have difference-makers in the midfield but not enough constantly in the attacking positions. While Miguel Berry and Erik Hurtado each scored goals against New England, the two combined for one shot, and it wasn’t on target.

This should change for Columbus in the summer when a Designated Player striker comes in and, hopefully, starts making a difference. Until that time, however, the Crew will have to hope others can step up, which is not happening enough.

Caleb Porter has tough lineup decisions to make

Heading into Saturday’s match, Porter made a few difficult choices when it came to his starting 11. First, he made the decision to stick with the 4-3-3 formation that worked well in recent games. Second, he made the obvious choice to reinsert the now fully fit Zelaryan back into the lineup, but played him as an attacking left winger in order to stay with the 4-3-3. Third, he decided to keep James Igebekeme in the starting lineup, moving him to central midfield instead of on the left wing and sending Aidan Morris to the bench.

On paper, this all made sense, and perhaps it would have worked out better if the team hadn’t conceded a goal nine minutes into the game and had time to settle into the tactics. In practicality, it didn’t work.

The 4-3-3 had allowed the Black & Gold to control the midfield more in recent matches and it made sense to stick with this formation, especially on the narrow pitch at Yankee Stadium. But this takes Zelarayan’s natural attacking midfield position off the field. Columbus fans who play a lot of FIFA where you can slot players anywhere without any real consequence, got to see what Zelarayan on the left wing looks like: it’s not as good as when he’s in the center of the park.

The Argentine needs freedom to attack and from the middle, he is less predictable and more difficult to mark because he can move all over the field. He also isn’t a defensive player, meaning both Igbekeme and Santos had to be more defensive to cover on the left side for the Crew, taking them out of attacking positions at times.

Porter wanted more technical players on the field, so Igbekeme over Morris made sense. But Morris had been a key part of why the 4-3-3 worked so well. This isn’t to say Porter got it wrong starting Igbekeme over Morris, that was actually the reasonable play, but it’s a decision that will have to be examined any time the Black & Gold plays a 4-3-3 with everyone healthy.

Decisions are often a good problem for a coach to have, and that is the case here. It just seems better when it leads to a positive result.

Is it time for a bold change at the back?

So far this season, Columbus has three shutouts. One came in the opening game of the year against a hapless Vancouver Whitecaps side that is tied for the second-fewest goals scored so far this season. The second came against D.C. United, a team that has already fired its coach this year. The third was against Sporting Kansas City, the team tied with Vancouver for a major scoring problem.

Coming into the year, the expectation was that the Crew would be a good defensive side. The team has been okay in this department, conceding 13 goals in 13 games, tied for 11th best in MLS.

The Black & Gold have played mostly two center back combinations with Jonathan partnering either Degenek or Josh Williams. But perhaps its time for a third combo with Degenek and Williams playing alongside each other?

While the most likely way for this to occur would be in a back three/five, with Jonathan playing with the other two, that doesn’t seem like a natural fit. Sitting the captain down without an injury or a need for rest doesn’t happen often, but Jonathan has made his fair share of mistakes at the back this year — including whatever miscommunication occurred on NYCFC’s second goal — and no player should be locked into the starting lineup for a team in 10th place in the Eastern Conference following a playoff-less season.

It’s fair to point out that other players have committed errors that have led to goals as well and that hasn’t led to their taking a seat on the bench. But if Columbus can’t score goals regularly, this defense needs to play at its best and it’s not clear who the best defensive combination is right now. Maybe it’s time to try something new.