There were two ways to look at the Columbus Crew’s 1-1 draw against Charlotte FC on Saturday at Lower.com Field. In one sense, it was a point at home, a venue at which the Crew surprisingly doesn’t have a great record this year, and the team needs to find ways to get points as it enters the summer months. On the other hand, the Black & Gold were up 1-0 at halftime and couldn’t see the game out.
At times, the Columbus coaches and players may have been okay with this result given the circumstances surrounding the game. That was not the case, however.
“I think it’s two points dropped for us,” head coach Caleb Porter said after the game.
Through 14 games this season, the Crew has 17 points and sits three points back of the MLS Cup playoffs line. While it’s a bit early to begin thinking about the postseason, it’s now 10 games, four at home, where the Black & Gold have failed to win.
This contest was always going to be a challenge. While Charlotte is an expansion side and has struggled away from home, Columbus came out of the three-week international break with nine players on the injury report. Of those nine, six did make the gameday roster for this match.
The Crew did not have playmaker Lucas Zelarayan, midfielder Artur, winger Yaw Yeboah, left backs Pedro Santos and Will Sands and center back Jonathan Mensah. Because of this, Porter lined his team up in a 3-5-2 formation the Black & Gold had not used from the start of a match this season.
While it wasn’t a pretty first half, forward Erik Hurtado capitalized on a mistake by Charlotte goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina, which was forced by pressure from forward Miguel Berry, to give Columbus a 1-0 lead four minutes before halftime. But just four minutes after the break, the Crew made a series of defensive mistakes that led to an Andre Shinyashiki equalizer after a save by goalkeeper Eloy Room.
“It was a tale of two halves,” Porter said of the game. “I thought the first half, it was a tight game. They’re a good team with the ball. We knew they’d have some of the ball. It was a pretty tight half. There weren’t many chances. But I thought we executed pretty well in a new system, obviously with a bunch of guys out. I was really pleased going up the goal and they didn’t have many chances.
“And I just think we lost focus. We lost focus on the goal. It’s not a good goal. It’s not like we’re under sustained pressure, where you see it come in. It’s not one you take your hat off and go, ‘Great goal.’ It’s just for me, we lose focus. They play a ball in, back heel it in the channel, we don’t get tight, it’s a shot. It’s kind of spilled for kind of a scraggly rebound that you go, ‘How does that happen?”
Other than shouts for two fouls not called that could have led to a red card and a penalty kick, the Black & Gold was not overly dangerous following Charlotte’s goal and it was the visitors who had the best chance to win the game late. Porter was not happy with his team’s response following the equalizer.
While this can be justified a little bit by the number of key players that were not available for this game – and credit Porter for being flexible with his formations and trying multiple new things in the match – Columbus built a roster that expects to be able to handle injuries and players missing time.
“For me, anybody that’s going to be playing for us has to have a strong mentality and have a response, show that they can raise their level,” Porter said. “So I thought that next 15-20 minutes was us really kind of almost taking time to accept that we just gave up a goal versus figuring out how we’re going to get the goal back. Simple as that sounds. And then I thought the last 10-15 minutes we had a little bit of a push, a few half chances. It’s one we’re disappointed on.”
Had this game been played with the Crew closer to full strength, the result is likely different. If Jonathan and Santos are along the backline – allowing the Black & Gold to play four at the back as they typically do – the first goal possibly doesn’t happen with players being held accountable. Having more attacking pieces, like Zelarayan, Artur and Yeboah available means maybe Columbus puts together more dangerous attacking opportunities early or is able to create some legitimate chances to grab the lead in the second half.
The team lacked some of its better talent – which led to two Crew 2 players getting loaned to the first team and making their MLS debuts – but also could have used the leadership the more experience players bring to see out or fight for a result at home.
“I think there were a few guys that we were missing just in terms of that late push,” Porter said. “Whether that’s quality like a Lucas to pull off a play or whether that’s a Jonah Mensah or an Artur in terms of the leadership. I thought Josh had a good game, (Jalil Anibaba), Milos (Degenek), they had good games but on that one goal, we fell asleep. And I think when I look at that, I think we’ve got to do better in that moment.
“I think for me it’s the collective mentality. Now, Jonah in, Pedro in, Lucas in, right? Automatically our mentality gets a little stronger and we have more leaders and quality. That changes things for sure. But we’re going to have games where we don’t have those guys in like today, and we have to find ways to still claw out at the very least a 1-0 win.”
In the big picture, this game isn’t likely to impact where the Crew finishes in the standings, especially considering the Black & Gold went to Atlanta United before the international break, also while missing some of these key pieces, and got an unexpected win on the road. But this team isn’t looking for moral victories and knows real wins are what matter, no matter the extraneous factors.
“I think, two games, obviously four points, it’s not the end of the world for 14 games in,” Porter said. “But we have to keep improving. We have to keep improving. And yet, I think with all the guys we had out, a new system, we played a couple of Crew 2 guys and that’s how thin we were… So it’d be easy to find positives and silver linings. But I think what I’m looking at 14 games in, no matter who’s in or who’s out, I’m looking for results, and I think it’s two points dropped for us.”