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‘We’re a lot close than people think’ - Crew’s analytics tell a different story than their record

The Black & Gold are doing a lot right... except finishing when in good positions.

MLS: Los Angeles FC at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Through 12 games of the 2022 Major League Soccer season for the Columbus Crew, the basic numbers tell one story. In the standings, the Crew sits in 12th place in the Eastern Conference on 13 points. The Black & Gold have scored just 15 goals, seven of which came in the first two games.

While it’s still early in the season, the basic numbers aren’t promising for Columbus, a team with one win in the last nine matches. Even taking into account the team’s schedule so far, facing four of the top five teams in the Eastern Conference and the top team in the Supporters’ Shield standings, it doesn’t look good.

But digging a little deeper and there are certainly positives in the way the Crew has played through the first 12 games. In fact, there are some key analytic numbers that tell a very different story for a Black & Gold attack that has failed to score in half of their games.

“I think we’re No. 2 in half spaces,” head coach Caleb Porter pointed out this week. “We’re No. 2 in box entries in the whole entire league after 12 games and No. 4 I think in Zone 14.”

This is Porter’s way of pointing out that Columbus is getting in good spots and creating chances. The problem is that the team isn’t finishing these chances and that leads to the current struggle in the standings.

This is not Porter pulling numbers out of nowhere during a press conference either. The Crew is second in MLS in actions during a match that occur in the half space – the space between the central and wide areas – with 43 per game and fourth in Zone 14 actions – the space in the middle of the field just above the penalty box – with 25 per match. Both of these areas are where teams work to get on the field in order to best position themselves to score goals.

In the Black & Gold’s most recent loss – 2-0 to LAFC – Columbus had 45 half space actions compared to the LA’s 20. The Crew had 34 Zone 14 actions in contrast to LAFC’s 13. The difference was LA capitalized on two mistakes at the back by the Black & Gold to score its two goals and Columbus had two goals called back for offside and failed to convert on multiple other good opportunities.

This is why Porter felt justified in saying after the loss that the Crew dominated LAFC, a point he reiterated again this week.

“That’s the best team in the league and for 60 minutes, we had the better of the game and I think we’re close,” he said Wednesday. “What we’re missing, where that gap is, is the final third.”

Getting to the final third has not been a problem for the Black & Gold this season. It’s what the team does when players get in good positions that have caused problems.

Going back to Saturday, winger James Igbekeme had the best chance of the match early on a ball across the six-yard box from Yaw Yeboah. Despite overrunning the ball, he still managed a flick toward net, but could have laid the ball off to forward Miguel Berry or playmaker Lucas Zelarayan for an even more clear-cut opportunity. The chance instead went for nothing.

James Igbekeme has the ball at his feet inside the six-yard box but the Crew get a slow-rolling shot that was easily cleared.

Yeboah did find the night twice but was called offside each time, the second of which was a run mistimed by less than a second. He also had the opportunity to play a ball across again but was hesitant on the decision. Berry had a chance where more composure in a good spot leads to a simple finish.

None of these led to goals for Columbus.

“It’s hard sometimes to not get frustrated because you know you’re doing all the right things,” Porter said. “That’s not just me saying that. That’s the facts. The bottom line is I’m not happy we’re getting in those spots and not scoring, neither is the team. And the bottom line is we’re not happy the results aren’t there.”

On the other side, Carlos Vela came in at halftime for LAFC and was gifted a near breakaway by a rare sloppy touch from the Crew’s Darlington Nagbe 17 minutes later. He neatly tucked his opportunity away for a 1-0 lead. José Cifuentes hopped on a poor touch from Nagbe after a goal kick in the 73rd minute and easily doubled the visitor’s lead.

“There’s a reason why some guys are Carlos Vela and some guys aren’t,” Porter said. “That’s a reality. At the end of the day, I love my guys but my job is to put them in good positions to score goals and we’re doing that. I’m going to continue to be positive with those guys that are in those positions, I’m going to continue to show them those clips and work with them and then get back on the training ground and push that quality and that precision. But I feel like we’re doing, and the team knows this, all the right things to score goals. That’s not just me saying it, it’s the facts.”

While the Black & Gold have made it clear they are going to add a Designated Player striker this summer – and Porter hinted that the team may need to add more than just one attacking player – the transfer window doesn’t open until July and that’s more than a month away. Columbus has talented and highly paid players on the roster that need to step up in these attacking areas and put the ball in the goal in the meantime.

“Lucas is the real one in the attack. When you look at Lucas, he’s in that caliber. We need our front three to score. That’s their job,” Porter said. “At the end of the day, our front three is where we’re falling short... We need Yaw, Miguel, Erik Hurtado, guys that play on the wing to score goals and they’re in great spots to do that. And ultimately everybody sees that, everybody knows that. Those guys know that as well.”

Zelarayan is as good as they come in MLS, but the Argentine hasn’t scored a goal since mid-March. After a breakout season last year, Berry has just two goals in 12 games, 11 starts, this season. Yeboah and Igbekeme are yet to score.

Etienne, to his credit, has three goals this year, already the second-highest mark of his career, but they have not come consistently.

“We’ve got to keep playing the way we’re playing and we need to obviously add a piece or two, definitely a striker,” Porter said. “Can we get Miguel and Erik going? Because they know a striker’s coming. Can we get a couple goals out of those guys?

Throughout the struggles over the opening third of the season, Porter has remained positive. He continues to work with his players to get them into good positions and practice the fundamentals each day of finishing these chances when they come.

While fans have been critical of the head coach after the 3-5-4 start – something Porter welcomes because he too is frustrated – Porter continues to analyze the games and the underlying numbers that tell a bit more of the story than the scoreboard at times. He knows what needs to be fixed and believes it will be, which will lead to a turnaround in results.

“We’re a lot close than people think,” Porter said.