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What We Learned: Crew vs. Charlotte FC/Real Salt Lake

We take a look back at takeaways from the last two Black & Gold matches.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Real Salt Lake Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a busy last week for the Columbus Crew, which meant it was a busy last week for Massive Report. After the signing of Designated Player striker Cucho Hernandez, much of our coverage even in the build-up to last week’s 0-0 draw at Real Salt Lake focused on the new addition. This means other things got a bit lost in the shuffle.

This week, we’ll do something a bit different with What We Learned, looking back at the biggest takeaways from the last two matches. There are some things that apply to both games, while others will apply to just one.

To refresh, the Crew played to a 1-1 draw at home against Charlotte FC two weeks ago before going on the road and earning the draw against Real Salt Lake. A tie at home was a disappointment, even with six regular contributors out, but the point at Rio Tinto Stadium, again with a number of players missing, wasn’t a bad result.

Let’s take a look back at what we learned from these last two Black & Gold matches.

Columbus finds ways to grind out important results

When the season started, head coach Caleb Porter talked about how this team may not score with the best in MLS (more on that later) but he thought his group would be able to play good defense and grind out results better than they did a year ago. That has certainly been the case in 2022. While there are games the Crew would like back — losses at home to Nashville SC and Orlando City SC specifically — the Black & Gold have found ways to get points in important instances.

This is especially true on the road this year. After going 3-14-10 away from home over the last two seasons, Columbus is 1-2-5 this year away from Lower.com Field. While the lack of wins is certainly concerning — every team in the Eastern Conference above the playoff line has at least two wins on the road — the Crew is tied for the second-fewest road losses in the East.

Saturday’s draw in Salt Lake City was the third time this year an undermanned Black & Gold side went into a difficult place to play and got a result. This is an important trait of a team that is still working to be successful with at least one reinforcement on the horizon. Getting an ugly road point now — or in the case of the Atlanta United game before the international break, an ugly three points — could go a long way if players get healthy and things start really clicking later in the season.

The offense is painful without Designated Players

There is plenty of excitement for Hernandez to arrive in Columbus after the club confirmed the deal. But each of the last two games shows how desperate the Crew is for not just Hernandez but Lucas Zelarayan as well after the team’s other DP has missed the last three matches.

With Erik Hurtado and Miguel Berry up top against Charlotte, the Black & Gold did manage 13 shots but only four of those were on target. The one goal scored did come from Berry putting pressure on the goalkeeper and Hurtado capitalizing on a poor touch, but it was again not enough as neither front man showed the ability and instinct to be consistently dangerous.

Hernandez should change that when he is able to play — the first game he will be eligible for is July 9 at the Chicago Fire — and it will make Columbus more dangerous attacking. But it wasn’t just a lack of a starting-level striker that was apparent in this game. The Crew needs a healthy Zelarayan on the field.

While the Black & Gold are now 2-0-3 when Zelarayan plays fewer than 20 minutes, his ability offensively when he is at his best makes him among the MLS’s best players. Before he suffered his knee injury against the New York Red Bulls in late March, Zelarayan was near the top of MLS in chances created — either for himself or for a teammate — and arguably was the frontrunner for the league’s Most Valuable Player award.

Teams in MLS can get results without their highly-paid players on the field, and Columbus has at times this year, but there’s a reason teams pay big money for players like Hernandez and Zelarayan. If either or both of them were on the field against Charlotte, that draw with little promising in the attack is probably a very different result and performance.

Caleb Porter continues to show flexibility

One of the major issues during last year’s MLS Cup defense season was that once the Crew suffered from the injury bug, there was no Plan B. Porter continued to try and play more or less the same way with different players. It was a square peg, round hole situation.

Coming into this year, Porter discussed having different ideas for games when certain players, namely Zelarayan, missed. In the preseason, the Black & Gold worked on different formations to have ideas ready in case they were needed in the season. Fans have seen this, both in the move to a 4-3-3 and in-game adjustments.

Against Charlotte, Columbus came out in a 3-5-2 for the first time this year, using the players available in the best way possible. With no left back — both Pedro Santos and Will Sands were out — Porter went with his three healthy center backs and Derrick Etienne Jr. dropped into a wing back role opposite Steven Moriera. It also allowed for the three-man midfield of Aidan Morris, Darlington Nagbe and James Igbekeme that has been so good to remain on the field together.

Porter again got creative with a different set of players at Real. In this game, he was without much in the way of attacking options without Etienne, Hurtado, Zelarayan, Yaw Yeboah and Kevin Molino all failing to make the bench. Because of this, the Crew went with a much more defensive-minded approach, allowing Berry to play up top by himself for much of the match and only getting forward when the situation allowed. The Black & Gold kept it tight at the back and while Columbus had only five shots, the defense limited RSL to mostly efforts from outside the penalty area.

Once healthy and with Hernandez soon to be in the fold, Porter should be able to return to his 4-2-3-1 formation and allow the Crew to play its possession, attacking style much more frequently. But until then, the Black & Gold needed to adjust to at least get results and have done that of late. This will also be a helpful ace in the hole to have if Zelarayan, Hernandez or others miss time going forward.

Props to Columbus’ young players

Going on the road to Rio Tinto Stadium has not been easy for opposing sides this year, with only one coming away with a point prior to the Crew’s trip to Salt Lake City on Saturday. The Black & Gold did this while starting a Homegrown rookie in Sean Zawadski in a crucial No. 6 role in central midfield with Aidan Morris, essentially in his second professional season after missing nearly all of last year with an ACL injury, playing in the center of the field too.

Rookie Will Sands then came off the bench in the 61st minute and helped Columbus see out the result. Additionally, Crew 2 players Jacen Russell-Rowe and Mohamed Farsi each played 20-plus minutes.

This is a nice crop of young players Columbus has developed and Porter has shown confidence in. And while these players likely aren’t seeing the first-team field if the Crew is fully healthy, it’s nice to know that Porter has these options to go to in order to get a job done.