The Columbus Crew hosted Atlanta United on Sunday evening in what ended up being another weather-delayed match. Once the Black & Gold and the Five Stripes did kick off at Lower.com Field, it was the visitors that established themselves early while the home side didn’t appear to come out of the locker room right away.
After Atlanta took an early lead, the Crew was able to battle back to go in front in the second half. But set piece defending again bit the Black & Gold, who gave up a goal from a corner and settled for the 2-2 draw at home.
Let’s take a look back at the match and see what we learned from the 25th game of the season.
A lack of urgency
For a team that is fighting for an MLS Cup playoff spot, and claims to want to finish in the top four of the Eastern Conference, it certainly didn’t appear like that for much of the early portion of Sunday’s proceedings. The game against United should have been the start of a three-match winning streak given where these next three opponents sit in the table, but Columbus wasn’t up for the challenge enough in this game to get three points.
The Crew came out of the locker room rather flat to start the match, allowing the Five Stripes to boss the game in the first half. There was far too much standing and watching as an Atlanta team that entered the game in 13th place in the East moved the ball around and got into dangerous positions. Yet United players were allowed time and space to cross the ball and control and shoot from the top of the penalty box, leading to the opening goal 21 minutes into the game.
After the match, head coach Caleb Porter said there were a couple of players who didn’t play with the right intensity out of the gates. Porter didn’t name these players but from where I was sitting, Artur was the main culprit. Throughout the match, the Brazilian midfielder was a step slower than many others on the field, both with and without the ball.’
Last week, I wrote about why Porter is selecting Artur over third-year Aidan Morris and that it’s a good problem to have two talented central midfielders battling for the same position. Yet Artur only hurt his case to continue as the starter in that position on Sunday. While he was not alone in lacking the intensity needed against a team that has the talent of the Five Stripes, it was evident that he was not up for the challenge and his 87 minutes of action weren’t good enough.
The same case could be made about Derrick Etienne Jr. While the Haitian winger has had a breakout season statistically in 2022, four of his last five matches have been underwhelming. When the ball isn’t coming his way, Etienne seems to lose interest in the match and doing the other things without the ball to help his team. He was frustrated with coming out of the game in the 61st minute but Kevin Molino, his replacement, quickly got more involved in the play than Etienne had.
Artur picked up a yellow card in this match, which means he will be suspended for Saturday’s game at FC Cincinnati, but it will be up to Porter to make sure the intensity from his players is where it needs to be for a derby match. That could mean making some changes to the lineup and sending a message that believing a match is won before it kicks off will not be tolerated.
Luis Diaz keeps it rolling
In his first three seasons with the Crew, Diaz had just seven assists combined. He has contributed three helpers, including on Sunday, in the last three matches and has a career-high five assists on the year.
It’s clear that something is different for Diaz. The athletic ability has always been there for the Costa Rican winger, as he is one of the fastest players in MLS, but the decision-making has often been wrong. In recent matches, however, Diaz is making smart decisions about where and when to play the ball and it’s helping the Black & Gold offense to be as good as it's been in some time.
Obviously, the arrival of forward Cucho Hernandez has helped Diaz. The two Spanish-speaking players have a clear connection both on and off the field and Hernandez’s ability to be in dangerous spots and create space for himself has made it easier for Diaz to find him in good positions while also attracting attention away from the wings. But both Gyasi Zardes and Miguel Berry were open in the penalty box at times over the last few years and Diaz still struggled to get them the ball consistently when playing. That has not been the case with Hernandez.
For some players, especially young ones, it simply takes time to settle into a new league and country and find their form. Diaz is at an important time in his career, both with the possibility of a new contract and a World Cup on the horizon this offseason. He has recognized that he needed to improve his play if he wants to remain in Columbus or go to Qatar with his country and is doing the things to secure both goals.
The emergence of Will Sands
Twice this season, Pedro Santos has suffered an injury early in a match and the Crew has had to turn to the bench and bring in rookie Will Sands. Coincidentally, both of those games came against Atlanta. Sands played well in his 66 minutes in the 2-1 win against United on the road earlier this year and did so again on Sunday.
It was clear that after coming in for Santos in the 27th minute this weekend, the left back was a little tentative. He remained back and focused on his defensive duties as he settled into the match, which was a smart approach for the young player. In the second half, Sands was much more aggressive going forward, showcasing his offensive ability on the left side, which culminated in a nice play and pass to Hernandez for the second goal.
Santos has proven to be one of the best left backs in MLS this year, but at 34 years old, he is not going to be able to get up and down the wings forever. Sands looks like another young bright spot on this Black & Gold roster and a player that eventually will be more than a fill in left back when Columbus needs to turn to its bench for that position.