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What We Learned: Crew vs. New York City FC

There was plenty to take away from a crazy win for the Black & Gold on Saturday.

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

After giving up a one-goal lead late on Wednesday night before losing at home 2-1 to CF Montreal in stoppage, the Columbus Crew needed a response. The team was gifted, as it turned out, a golden opportunity by hosting the defending MLS Cup champions, New York City FC, at Lower.com Field on Saturday.

It was arguably one of the most important games of the season, the Black & Gold responded from an early 1-0 deficit to take a 2-1 advantage, then gave up that lead before ultimately winning the game against New York City 3-2. The victory returns some of the momentum lost by the disappointing defeat midweek and keeps Columbus firmly in the hunt for a top-four place in the MLS Eastern Conference.

Let’s take a look at our biggest takeaways from what was a topsy-turvy affair on Saturday night.

Lucas Zelarayan is on fire again

Zelarayan started the 2022 MLS season as hot as any player in the league. In the first three weeks alone, the Argentine had four goals, two assists and created more chances than any other player in MLS. But then he suffered an injury that he couldn’t shake, underperformed to his lofty standards and missed a few games before returning off the bench against D.C. United on April 30.

Since that time, Zelarayan has slowly returned to his peak form, with the type of play that made him MLS Newcomer of the Year and the MLS Cup Final MVP in 2020. In the last four matches, Zelarayan has four goals and has become a top provider since late June with seven assists in that stretch.

When Zelarayan is healthy and playing this way, the Crew is one of the more difficult teams in MLS to beat, or at the very least contain offensively. He can be both a potential goal scorer, as he was on Saturday with the go-ahead and game-winning goal, but can also play as the set-up man as a willing passer who is happy to celebrate his teammates’ finishes.

With forward Cucho Hernandez joining the fray, Zelarayan now isn’t alone as a top attacking option on the Black & Gold roster. This makes life that much easier for the playmaker, who now has more space to operate because the Colombian in front of him is attracting a lot of the attention that teams used to focus on Zelarayan.

The return to form for Zelarayan and the addition of Hernandez completely changed the Columbus attack. After scoring just 20 goals through the first 17 games of the season, the Crew has 11 finishes in the last six matches, and Zelarayan’s fingerprints have been on most of them.

This is the Luis Diaz the Black & Gold have been waiting on

Diaz has found his form. Halfway through his fourth season with Columbus, the 23-year-old Costa Rican is playing the way head coach Caleb Porter and his staff hoped when they acquired him.

What Diaz has always had is blinding speed — he is among the fastest players in MLS. Where he has struggled is with his decision-making and execution once he gets into the final third. That has been much less of a problem.

Since coming on at halftime against the Chicago Fire on July 9, Diaz has more often than not looked like a different player than in his first three years. He is playing much more decisive and doing the things expected of a Crew winger on the right side. The addition of Cucho Hernandez seems to have spurred this, as the forward has been seen talking animatedly to Diaz about where he wants the ball or how the play should work. For whatever reason, this message — which assuredly was being given by both coaches and teammates prior — is finally getting through. The two seems to have a connection.

Diaz was named the Man of the Match for his two-assist performance against City, and it was basically three helpers after his attempted cross deflected to Zelarayan for the winning goal, but it was more than that which shows Diaz’s progress. At times, when he gets behind the defense but beats his own team into the final third, the winger now picks his head up and recognizes he has no help. Instead of blindly serving a ball into the penalty box or looking to run at goal and fire wide, Diaz has started to pull the back and find an oncoming teammate. He did this on more than one occasion Saturday. While that doesn’t always lead directly to a goal-scoring chance, it keeps possession and lets the Black & Gold reset.

The question for Diaz is going to be, are things finally starting to click or is this just an extended fash from the blips Columbus has seen from the Costa Ricans before. Porter and those at Lower.com Field will hope it’s the former.

This defense isn’t as poor as it has looked lately

Just a few short weeks ago, the Black & Gold had one of the best defensive records in MLS. In fact, this was the only reason Columbus remained within touching distance of the MLS Cup playoff line while Zelarayan recovered from his injury and the team waited on the arrival of Hernandez.

But in the last six matches, as the Crew has found its scoring touch, the defense has started to leak goals, with eight allowed over that period. The Black & Gold, while still fourth in goals conceded in MLS, has fallen off the pace of the league’s best defensive team, the Philadelphia Union, by an eight-goal margin.

Yet Saturday showed that Columbus can still defend well, even if the stats don’t show it. Fans will remember that both of New York City’s goals came off of deflections, and one was credited as an own goal. While there were mistakes made on the plays that led to the visitors finding the back of the net, it wasn’t as if NYCFC pulled apart the Crew and found easy finishes. Both shots (although the first looked more like a cross) came from distance and likely don’t trouble goalkeeper Eloy Room much if not for the deflection. And considering that City is the third-best attacking team in MLS, albeit now without their top goal scorer, this is actually a positive.

It’s also worth pointing out that the Black & Gold haven’t been full strength defensively for a while now. Center back Milos Degenek was out for a period of time with an injury and shortly after coming back, Josh Williams had to go out with an illness at halftime against Montreal and missed the second half against the Pidgeons.

This Columbus team has heart

After the disappointment that was Wednesday night, the worst possible start to Saturday’s game was giving up an own goal. What made matters worse, from a mental perspective, in that situation was that it was an own goal off a weird deflection. Given the opponent, NYCFC sits second in the East, there were certainly people at Lower.com Field who thought this match was going to go south in a hurry.

But the Crew did not just roll over and admit defeat after giving up the team’s third goal in the last nine or so minutes of play. Instead, the Black & Gold fought back to take the lead by the 27th minute and looked the better team in the process.

Of course, Columbus then conceded again in the second half, another goal given up off a deflection. That also could have spelled the loss of at least two points for the Crew at home. But again the Black & Gold showed life, pushing for the winner and getting it in the 75th minute.

Then there was still 15 minutes plus stoppage time to defend that lead. After allowing two goals in the final few minutes to Montreal, plenty of Columbus fans had a bad feeling.

As it turned out, the Crew did enough. The ability to respond to adversity, both going into the game and during the match, is a positive for the Black & Gold and something the team needs to continue to build on going forward. Things aren’t going to go perfectly the rest of the season and possibly in the postseason. But if Columbus can accept bad things happen and then turn it around, that could take this team a long way.