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What We Learned: Crew vs. D.C. United

It’s more fun to find takeaways from a big win than another loss.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Kyle Robertson/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Let me start by saying, I apologize for the delay in this week’s What We Learned piece. I spent the last several days across the pond in England and only just returned to the United States. But while I was in England, I not only stayed up late to watch the Columbus Crew defeat D.C. United 3-0 on Saturday night/Sunday morning — it’s a good thing there were goals in this game, as recent Black & Gold performances might have put me to sleep — but also attempted to better educate myself on the beautiful game from a country of people who will let you know they know plenty about the sport.

So let’s get to it and see what we learned from the Crew’s first win in a month and a half.

There are goals and they don’t all have to come from Lucas Zelarayan

There’s no need to rehash Columbus’ recent scoring struggles. If you’re reading this, you’re well aware that the Black & Gold couldn’t find the back of the net in recent matches. When the starting lineup was released and Zelarayan wasn’t in it for a second straight game while still coming back from a knee injury, there was certainly concern that these struggles might continue.

As head coach Caleb Porter has said a number of times over the 360-plus-minute scoreless run, when the first goal comes in, the floodgates are likey to open. That was the case when left back Pedro Santos stepped up to take a free kick in the middle of the first half and burried the ball in the back of the net. Even from Manchester, England, it was apparent the emotion of seeing the team score and the weight it took off these players. With the U.S. Open Cup game aside, the Crew had too often been playing from behind allowing teams to just sit numbers deep and make life very difficult for Columbus when that happens.

The key, however, was going to be getting that second goal. D.C. certainly had chances to change the game both before and after Santos’ set piece and if United found a way to level the match, doubt may have started to creep into the minds of the players that things are actually turning around. Without Zelarayan, the team’s leading scorer this year, on the field, getting the second goal was that much harder.

Fortunately for the Black & Gold, the second goal came for the home side. Winger Derrick Etienne Jr., who has had plenty of chances lately but wasn’t able to convert, was much more composed after a great long ball from center back Josh Williams, calmly slotting the ball in the back of the net just before halftime.

Come the 75th minute, midfielder Darlington Nagbe’s rocket volley was the icing on the cake for the Crew. After four straight matches with no goals, fans at Lower.com Field had plenty to celebrate and the way Nagbe finished the shot made it even better.

Given that Zelarayan is still working his way back to 100 percent — it was good to see him get time in the second half — and with Miguel Berry’s continued struggles in front of the net, it’s important that other players started scoring. It will be even more important — at least until Columbus can add a Designated Player striker in the summer — that players such as Santos, Etienne and Nagbe, among others, continue to find goals. This team has offensive weapons; they just have to be more clinical and the group showed they can do that on Saturday.

The Zelarayan as a “false 9” could happen a lot more

For the final 19 minutes plus stoppage time against D.C., Porter went with Zelarayan playing as a forward. Given that he doesn’t have the same physicality or aerial ability to win balls as Berry does, Zelarayan plays this role more as a “false 9,” or like one might expect an attacking playmaker to when asked to be up top.

This is not the first time the Crew has used this look. Zelarayan played as a false 9 at times last year when injuries forced it. This could be something fans see more of over the next few months.

Berry is yet to find the scoring form of his breakout season a year ago and isn’t adding enough as a striker right now when he’s not scoring. Porter knows Zelarayan, when healthy, can be an offensive weapon, so why not let him be the team’s furthest forward player until there’s another player on the team that deserves to get those minutes at the position?

This also would be a way to play Zelarayan while also using the 4-3-3 that has been successful the last two games. Right now, the Black & Gold has three central midfielders in Nagbe, Artur and Aidan Morris that are all playing really well and this keeps them on the field even when Zelarayan is healthy

While it may change the way Columbus attacks, as Zelarayan isn’t getting on the end of many crosses, the Argentine as the False 9 makes the most sense for getting the best 11 players on the field and increasing the likelihood of goals and wins.

Santos is making a case as MLS’s best left back

Although some were skepticall about how it would work asking a 34-year-old winger to move to left back full time this season, Santos has transitioned seamlessly. The Portugese was targeted by opposing offenses early in the year, but has responded with quality performances in most games.

Saturday was another example. The goal, his first since a 3-1 win against this same United side last year, certainly helped, but Santos does so much right. Even though one could question D.C. goalkeeper Jon Kempin’s positioning on the finish, Santos reminded fans that Zelarayan isn’t the only player on the Crew roster who can score from dead balls. He was also good at helping the Black & Gold progess the ball forward and had one key pass in addition to his goal.

Santos also made a team-high seven tackles in the win and had four clearances on the defensive end. He had a blocked shot as well, remaining active on both sides of the ball.

At some point, Columbus will have to address the left back spot, but right now, Santos is playing that position as well as could be expected.

One game is not a fix-all

The Crew players certainly enjoyed getting this win. After knowing they played well in multiple games recently and not having anything to show for it, getting three points in front of the home fans was important for a number of reasons. But that doesn’t mean the team can just assume wins will start rolling in.

As mentioned, United had multiple good chances to score and the game could have been 1-0 in favor of the visitors before Santos’ opener. Coming out of the locker room to start the second half, it almost felt inevitable that D.C. would get a goal and at least make things uncomfortable for the Black & Gold.

It didn’t happen, but Columbus can still be cleaner defensively in games where the team isn’t just sitting back.

The Crew can still be better on offense as well. The team still isn’t taking the easy chances that it will need to in the future with 11 shots but only three on goal. Berry’s lack of confidence in front of the net is going to be a problem if that continues until July, or longer.

There’s no need to rain on the parade of a fun night, but just like it was a long season when the results weren’t coming, that remains the case now and the Black & Gold have to continue to put good days together to have more performances such as this one.