Sunday night, the Columbus Crew and Atlanta United fought a storm delay, a rainy second half and each other to a 2-2 draw at Lower.com Field. It was a deceptive scoreline, especially for anyone that only watched the first 60 minutes. The Black & Gold were outclassed, outmuscled and outplayed on their home field. There are a lot of theories on why this is the case, but head coach Caleb Porter has his own: Columbus didn’t have 11 players on the field who looked ready to play.
It’s the theory that holds the most water when looking back at the draw. After a split-second of possession in the attacking third to start the match, the Crew was on the back foot. In the first half, Atlanta pinned the Black & Gold back and had its fair share of shots, five on target and 10 overall, compared to two shots, one on target overall for the home side.
The match ended with Columbus needing eight saves from goalkeeper Eloy Room, including two in second half stoppage to keep even the single point. The night also required defensive clearances off the goal line from center backs Jonathan Mensah and Milos Degenek.
Postmatch, Porter wasn’t ready to name the players lacking that intensity, although he used Mensah, Degenek and the work of forward Cucho Hernandez and midfielder Lucas Zelarayan as positive examples. Instead, the message was clear.
“We had a couple guys that were casual,” said Porter. “That (Atlanta) is a very good team with a lot of talent and we let them get into the game and score a goal and you see when they’re allowed to get into a game how talented they are.”
United’s goal came in the 21st minute. Midfielder Santiago Sosa put the Five Stripes on the board with an impressive shot from 20 yards out, but not a shot that couldn’t have been stopped by simply closing down the opponent. It was a goal that perfectly summed up how Columbus was playing and its addition to the match was far from a surprise to anyone watching.
The Crew stood around in the build-up up to the goal, lacking any intensity or pressure on the Atlanta offense. After a cross went into the penalty box, United defender Caleb Wiley headed the ball out of the penalty area, finding its way through a group of three Five Stripes without a Black & Gold player in sight. The ball landed at Sosa’s feet and the midfielder had the time to rip a shot that was obstructed from Room’s view.
That obstruction came from midfielder Artur, who had a difficult night in his second start after returning from a fracture in his lower leg. The Brazilian, who will miss the Hell is Real Derby against FC Cincinnati due to yellow card accumulation, tried to stop the shot, but stepped far too late and too slowly.
It was not only Artur and it was not only that goal that Porter referred to. Columbus gave Atlanta space and time during the game that allowed the team’ to add to its shots on target total that’s second across all MLS in 2022. The Crew’s press and counter press was nearly non-existent.
The Black & Gold didn’t find that full-team intensity until into the second half. Midfielder Kevin Molino and fullback Will Sands, who came off the bench, each created moments that were eventually put into the back of the net by Hernández. After taking a 2-1 lead in the 72nd minute, it took United only five minutes to make things level. The Five Stripes did it on a pest to Columbus all season: set pieces.
Juan José Sánchez got on the end of a corner kick deliver and scored the match-tying goal. It was the seventh allowed set piece goal by the Crew in 2022. What makes a poor situation worse is that now the focus has stretched to not only include defensive set piece work but what’s not happening on offense.
“They were first to every set piece in the first half, both sides of the ball,” said Porter. “And that’s a sign, if we’re getting beat to balls in the box, that our that our mindset and our hunger and our intensity and our toughness isn’t what it needed to be.”
What’s the remedy for a lack of tenacity though? It’s not something that a tactical change can necessarily clean up.
“At the end of the day it’s on the player to be focused and ready to battle,” said Porter. “In the moment, when we’re up 2-1 on the corner kick, I wish I could call timeout, bring them in. But it’s soccer. They have to, in that moment, be ready to battle and mark the guy and put your you know what on the line. Put your face on the line. Break your face. That’s what we need in those moments.”
A positive from the match is that the Black & Gold has those players, they just didn’t play that way on Sunday night.
There are other arguments for why Columbus lacked intensity against Atlanta. Maybe they could have tactically played better, even though it’s the same side that fought back against New York City FC two weeks ago for a 3-2 victory that showed the league that the Crew can compete with top sides. Also, it was a week where the team looked loose in training against a United side that played midweek could have caught the Black & Gold off guard. Atlanta was also further down the table, and Columbus has one loss in 13 matches. Perhaps that’s what made certain Crew players complacent.
Any of those could be the reason but are usually easily shaken on the field and don’t last nearly an hour of match time.
What makes the most sense for a performance like Sunday’s, and the ones responsible for bringing the team back after looking so disjointed, is the choices of the players themselves.
“A top player is always ready and there’s very little dips psychologically,” said Porter “And if you’re a player that’s up and down in a roller coaster, that’s not good. Ultimately, that’s why some guys are top players, and some guys are inconsistent. I think we’ve got to get 11 guys that are going to be more consistent,”