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What We Learned: Crew at Chicago Fire

The biggest takeaway from a strange Black & Gold night at Soldier Field

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Chicago Fire Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports

The Columbus Crew made the trip to Soldier Field over the weekend and came away with a rare victory at the Chicago Fire. The win didn’t come easy, however, as the Fire took a 2-0 first half lead before Black & Gold head coach Caleb Porter made a number of halftime changes that led to a remarkable turnaround and the 3-2 triumph.

This was an important three points for Columbus, getting another win away from home. But it was also a match the Crew could have thrown away had the team not made such a second half comeback.

Let’s take a look at what we learned from the Black & Gold’s trip to Chicago, and we’ll go in the order things took place in the match.

Too many defensive lapses at once

For the vast majority of this season, Columbus has been solid defensively with the second-best goals against record in Major League Soccer. But on Saturday night, the Crew backline — made up of three center backs in Jonathan Mensah, Josh Williams and Jalil Anibaba and wing backs Steven Moreira and Pedro Santos — were all out of sorts, particularly in the first half.

Despite playing one of the league’s most anemic offenses, the Black & Gold couldn’t prevent the Fire from creating chance after chance in the opening 45 minutes. Even before the goals, both Mensah and Anibaba had mistakes — Mensah a whiffed clearance and Anibaba a giveaway in the penalty box — that better attacking teams would have capitalized on.

The opening goal was a nicely designed corner kick play by Chicago but brought back memories of Columbus’ inability to defend set pieces. While the injured Milos Degenek helps on those plays, the slow reactions from the Crew on a short corner and overlap isn’t what fans want to see.

And on the second goal, the Black & Gold just got caught out of position after pushing forward and never recovered. Mensah was too far to one side and the rest of the backline had to shift over. Santos didn’t sprint back, which left Chris Mueller wide open on the back post as the ball came across.

The defense was better in the second half, but of course, the Fire didn’t push numbers as high with a 2-0 lead.

Given that Columbus has allowed just 20 goals in 18 games played, there shouldn’t be a level of panic after one questionable defensive performance. But it was alarming at halftime that the Crew backline, and the defense as a whole, which had been so good seemed so flummoxed on how to handle an offense that came into the game with just 16 goals scored on the season.

The halftime adjustments

For the last few matches, the Black & Gold had found success grinding out results in the 3-5-2 formation. Porter liked the stability this look gave his team defensively, with three center backs keeping things sound at the back, as well as the central midfield group of Sean Zawadzki, Darlington Nagbe and Aidan Morris. It also allowed Lucas Zelarayan to be on the field in a central position, playing as a second forward.

But that look was undone by Chicago in the first half and wasn’t working for Columbus on Saturday night. Likely because that formation had only yielded two games in the last three matches it was used, Porter recognized a need for change.

The head coach made two halftime adjustments, bringing on wingers Derrick Etienne Jr. and Luis Diaz for Anibaba and Zawadzki. This allowed the Crew to switch back to its more familiar 4-2-3-1, playing four in the back, Zelarayan in his traditional playmaker role and Jacen Russell-Rowe up top by himself.

While this didn’t immediately lead to the comeback, it did set the stage. The Black & Gold were much more comfortable attacking out of the 4-2-3-1, pushing forward and connecting in the build-up better. This was a smart move to find more offense when trailing 2-0 and continues to show the team’s flexibility when healthy.

Cucho changes everything

It was only 28 minutes plus stoppage time but Cucho Hernandez’s debut changed everything. Of course, the record-setting Designated Player striker scored the game-winning goal that will be remembered in Columbus lore forever, but he did more than that.

From the time Hernandez checked into the game in 62nd minute, there was a different feel about the match. After players talked about being excited to play with Hernandez after only a few days of seeing him in training, this was clear with the boost the former Watford player gave his team.

The energy from the visiting side at Soldier Field noticeably increased when Hernandez came on the field. Maybe it was because his new teammates didn’t want to let him down on his debut, but few Crew substitutes ever have had this kind of impact.

Speaking of the goal specifically, Hernandez recognized where the space was as the ball turned over in the Fire’s half and timed his run perfectly to stay onside while also maximizing his space. The first touch by Hernandez was well played, allowing him to continue his sprint but also forcing Chicago goalkeeper Gabriel Slonina to commit. The finish, a perfect chip over the onrushing Slonina, was worthy of a jersey-removing celebration.

The other attacking contributions

The three attackers on the field other than Hernandez certainly seemed to benefit from the Colombian’s introduction.

While he was already having a career year, Etienne looked as good as he has for the Black & Gold, making smart runs to put himself in a position to finish. Both of his goals that pulled Columbus from 2-0 down were well-taken strikes, something he’s not always known for.

Zelarayan was seemingly reinvigorated by the introduction of Hernandez as well. After providing very little for the Crew offensively for much of the game, the Argentine played a part in both Etienne finishes, including a nice cut-back pass that sprung the Haitian on the first.

Diaz was perhaps the most surprising after a season and a half of struggles. He used his speed, as he always does, to run at a Chicago defense that was not ready for him but he made smart decisions on the ball, including laying the ball back across the face of goal for Etienne’s equalizer and picking his head up to spot the free Hernandez for the winner. These are the type of plays the Black & Gold have hoped to see from Diaz and now hope to see more often after demonstrating he can make the right play in attack.