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What We Learned: Crew at D.C. United

Takeaways from the Black & Gold’s road point at Audi Field.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at D.C. United Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

For the second time this week and the fifth straight game, the Columbus Crew played a match away from home and came out with a result. On Wednesday, the Black & Gold left Audi Field with a point after a 2-2 draw against D.C. United.

Unlike last Saturday’s match against the Chicago Fire, it was not Columbus that had to come from behind, but rather the Crew twice gave up a goal lead, including the final equalizer to former Black & Gold striker Ola Kamara in second half stoppage time. This turned what could have been a fourth road win this season into an eighth tie overall on the year.

Let’s take a look at what we learned about Columbus from this draw at United.

The Cucho problem

Crew players, coaches and fans alike have been waiting to see what this Black & Gold team looks like with an elite-level striker after struggling to score goals through the opening five months of the 2022 season. This week, they have seen this play out with the debut of Designated Player Cucho Hernandez. The issue in Hernandez’s first two games, however, is that the team seems too reliant on the striker, despite him only playing 73 minutes.

On Saturday, Columbus played arguably the team’s worst half of the season in the first 45 minutes, going down 2-0 to the Fire. It wasn’t until Hernandez came on to the field with just under 30 minutes to play that the Crew turned on the gas and scored three unanswered goals — the winner by the Colombian newcomer — to get the three points.

If the hope was that the first half at Soldier Field was just an aberration or a team with tired legs, it was clear on Wednesday night that this was not the case. Once again, the Black & Gold did little offensively in the first half against D.C., recording one shot and allowing United to have too much of the ball. Once again, it was the injection of Hernandez at halftime that turned the tide and the offense came to life.

While Hernandez was brought to Columbus to be a game-changer, he can’t be the reason the Crew starts to play on the attacking end. In these last two games, it’s almost as if the Black & Gold players were just waiting for Hernandez to come into the match, as both of his substitute appearances were planned ahead of time, instead of trying to take the game by the scruff of the neck at the start.

It’s only two games, and both have involved him coming off the bench, but others need to continue to produce when Hernandez isn’t on the field for this team to be as successful as it hopes to be.

The Cucho solution

Taking everything said above into consideration, it’s still worth pointing out that waiting for and relying on Hernandez has worked out well in both games he has played. His energy was infectious against Chicago, spurring on the Crew’s attack, and he scored the goal to complete the comeback and grab three points.

Against D.C., Hernandez took over the game on the offensive end for the Black & Gold. He scored his first goal with a curling effort from the top of the penalty box reminiscent of Justin Meram’s best days in Columbus. One minute after United equalized, Hernandez snatched back the momentum by getting on the end of a Lucas Zelarayan ball into the 18-yard box and heading it home. Even with limited time left after Kamara’s goal, there was a sense Hernandez might have one last magic trick to perform at Audi Field.

These types of game-changing plays are exactly why the Crew paid a club-record fee for Hernandez. He gives head coach Caleb Porter the type of striker he wants, a player who will do anything possible to score the goal and wants to be the hero. Without Hernandez these last two games, the Black & Gold are probably looking at best two more draws away from home and maybe no goals scored.

It’s still only two games, but Hernandez already looks the part of a top player in MLS. And he’s only nine goals back in the Golden Boot race.

Struggles against bottom-feeders

While Columbus will take four points from these last two games, nothing came easy — well, except for maybe Hernandez — for the Crew against Chicago and D.C. This is a bit concerning as those two teams entered the week as the worst two teams in MLS.

One thing the Black & Gold have done well this year, and why the team is still in MLS Cup playoff contention, is getting points against teams below them in the standings. While this continued with both of these games, Columbus was down 2-0 against the Fire and couldn’t ever put United away. These are two teams that have struggled mightily so far this year but were able to make things interesting, at least, against the Crew.

If the Black & Gold are going to establish themselves as one of the best teams in MLS and climb back up the Eastern Conference table over the second half of this season, they need to handle business better against teams that are struggling and not make life more difficult for themselves.