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What We Learned: Crew vs. FC Cincinnati

The Black & Gold have found their offense and the defense returned to form against the rivals.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Columbus Crew finished what was a week of rivalry matches on Sunday with a win against in-state foe FC Cincinnati. After a comeback at the Chicago Fire the Saturday prior and a draw at D.C. United in the midweek, the two teams historically considered the Crew’s rivals, the Black & Gold earned a 2-0 win against the Orange and Blue.

This victory means Columbus is undefeated in the team’s last eight games and propelled the Crew above the MLS Cup playoff line for the first time since May. It also meant the Black & Gold went 1-0 against Cincinnati and take the Hell is Real Derby lead for 2022 before the two teams meet again at TQL Stadium in late August.

Let’s take a look at what we learned from the win against FC Cincinnati.

Cucho isn’t the only hero

After more or less relying on record-signing Cucho Hernandez to win/draw the last two games, Columbus did not have to do so as much in the derby match. Yes, Hernandez scored what was the game-winning goal in the 16th minute, but it was Lucas Zelarayan who took home the man of the match honors against the Orange and Blue.

As he did in the second half against D.C. earlier last week — when the two checked into the game together — Zelarayan looked much more the player who won MLS Player of the Month to begin the 2022 MLS season than the one Crew fans had seen play recently. In addition to his assist to Hernandez on the opening goal, Zelarayan earned — via a shot that struck an outstretched hand in the penalty box — and scored a late penalty kick that sealed the win for the Black & Gold.

This was the first goal for the Argentine since March 12 in a 2-1 win against Toronto FC. This from a player who began the year with four goals in his first three games.

Be it the presence of another attacking Designated Player in Hernandez or the fact that he’s finally back to full health, after dealing with a knee injury suffered on March 20 against the New York Red Bulls and the lingering effects, Zelarayan is playing not only like he did earlier in the season but as he did in 2020 when he was the MLS Newcomer of the Year and won MLS Cup MVP.

If this form continues, this is nothing but good news for Columbus.

The Crew got the team’s moves right

When forward Gyasi Zardes was traded to the Colorado Rapids in late April, many fans were confused at the team’s decision-making. The Black & Gold waited until nearly two months into the season to move a player who had been the team’s leading scorer and a United States Men’s National Team member for the vast majority of his Columbus career and, at least initially, didn’t get a huge haul in return.

At the time, the Crew, first privately and then publically, made it clear that this move was done to open space to sign a marquee DP striker that would enhance an attack that, no could argue, had gone stale. The response from Black & Gold fans was that the front office better get this signing right to make it worth moving on from Zardes, who was not only a talented player but also a key part of the locker room and the local community.

As it stands, Columbus did gett this move spot on. While it did take time before Hernandez was acquired and could play, and this was a stretch where the Crew struggled to score goals and therefore win games, Hernandez has quickly demonstrated that he was worth wait.

While it’s early, the forward has four goals in his first three games, including two game-winning strikes. After Sunday’s win, he became the fastest player in MLS history to reach the four-goal mark, doing so in under 90 minutes of game action. Even when he’s not scoring, he is making an impact, bringing energy and appropriate movement to the Black & Gold’s play and making life easier on his teammates.

By comparison, Zardes has played in 12 games, starting 11, since his move to the Rapids. In that time, 934 minutes, he has three goals.

This is not to disparage Zardes, because he was a great player for Columbus and the move to Colorado has shown he can still find the back of the net. But the Crew wanted a young, diverse attacking player who could potentially be among the best strikers in the league. Hernandez has looked the part so far.

The Black & Gold initially received $300,000 in General Allocation Money for 2022 from the Rapids, money that could increase to as much as $1.25 million, for Zardes. Columbus also moved forward Miguel Berry, who started the season as the No. 1 striker ahead of Zardes but fell down the depth chart, to D.C. United on Wednesday in exchange for $325,000 in GAM. While neither trade is game-changing money, though Zardes’ could be, this appears to be some good business for the Crew.

Defense looks most comfortable in a 4-2-3-1

Throughout the 2022 MLS season, the Black & Gold have been one of the best defensive teams in the league, allowing 22 goals through 20 games played. This is largely what kept Columbus afloat and in contention for a playoff spot until Hernandez arrived and the offense got going.

Over the last two games, however, the defense looked out of sorts. The Crew gave up two goals each to the Chicago Fire and D.C. United, two of the worst teams in MLS, and it was due to some sloppy defending. This came with the Black & Gold continuing to change formations.

Back in the 4-2-3-1 formation that the team has traditionally used under head coach Caleb Porter, the team looked more comfortable defensively. While Cincinnati had a great chance early, which forced an impressive save by goalkeeper Eloy Room, and a couple of half chances after, the Orange and Blue weren’t very dangerous with just nine shots and two on goal.

At the beginning of the second half, with Columbus only up 1-0, Cincinnati began to take some control of the match. The Crew stayed calm and handled things defensively to get back possession and re-take control of the game. The Black & Gold handled set pieces, a problem for much of the year, well also while only up one goal.

This was certainly a positive after the last two games defensively Columbus.