The Columbus Crew played a rare Tuesday match, against Inter Miami. It was a contest that really had it all: multiple goals, big defensive stops, tough injuries, a storm delay and a late-match winner. Unfortunately for the Black & Gold, they were on the losing side of a 2-1 scoreline on the road.
With four matches remaining in the 2022 MLS regular season, Tuesday felt like a possible turning point for the Columbus season, and not in a good way. The Crew returned home with a third difficult result in a row, questions surrounding personnel, focus on the field and a potential injury to a key cog in the defensive machine.
Here are our takeaways from a somber Ft. Lauderdale trip.
Just before halftime, five minutes after forward Cucho Hernandez scored a first half equalizer, center back Jonathan Mensah ran side-by-side next to forward Gonzalo Higuain. Charging down the sideline, Higuain received the ball with an opportunity to put the home side on an offensive break. Mensah, like he’s done since joining the Black & Gold in 2017, took on the challenge and a well-timed slide tackle stopped the attack, allowing Columbus to regroup. After the play though, Mensah stayed down and came off the field due to a hamstring injury.
Defender Josh Williams came into the match for Mensah, and played well in the second half, but the Crew still allowed the match-winning goal in the 82nd minute.
Head coach Caleb Porter didn’t have an update on Mensah after the game, outside of sharing the location of the injury, with the Black & Gold needing to do a full analysis back at the OhioHealth Performance Center. If it is serious though, or even something that puts Mensah out for the rest of the regular season, Columbus’ MLS Cup playoff chances decrease greatly.
In 2020, it was the defense that carried the Crew to the MLS Cup Final and held a favorited Seattle Sounders side to zero goals in the title game. When the Black & Gold struggled to keep defenders healthy, poor results followed. Right now, Columbus can’t afford to have any more poor results.
Williams and center back Milos Degenek are both starting-caliber defenders in MLS, but for a team that doesn’t have consistent defense outside of the center back positions, the best players need to be on the backline. With Mensah out, the Crew loses a center back who leads the team in interceptions (66) and clearances (122).
After the Black & Gold 2-2 comeback draw against FC Cincinnati on Aug. 27, Porter called for supporters to respect the fight within the Columbus locker room. That comment was sandwiched between saying two or three players had “casual performances” in a 2-2 Atlanta United comeback draw. On Tuesday, non-tactical pieces were called out again, with Porter putting the losses up to poor focus and lost concentration.
The messages have been mixed of late, but it’s hard to argue watching the performances on the field. There are matches where the Crew fights and claws back into contests, with last night’s first half equalizer showing glimpses, but overall it doesn’t look like the fight is there close to 90 minutes each match day.
Tuesday night, the Miami offense didn’t need to do much in a display of quality over quantity. Inter exploited spots in the counter attack in the first half, and ran past a slow-to-react Black & Gold defense in the closing minutes to win at home, with Porter citing substitutions not “getting the job done.”
For a side that’s looking at every remaining match like a cup final, there isn’t cup final fight match in and match out. After a long season that included major changes to the offense, key injuries at points of the season and now an end of year stretch where Columbus is averaging a match every four days since Aug. 21, its not hard to see why the fight isn’t there.
The Crew averages 0.01 more points per match than in 2021 where the team narrowly missed the playoffs after being under the line for much of the season. The Black & Gold’s current 1.37 points per game is Columbus’ worst since 2019’s abysmal 1.12 average. Since Hernandez’s debut on July 9, it isn’t much better at 1.46.
The Crew still hold onto the seventh place, and has a two point lead over eighth place Miami, but its going to be a fight for the final four matches.
Questions about Pedro Santos’ return
A positive on the night was the return of winger-turned-fullback Pedro Santos. Entering the match in the 77th minute, with the match tied at 1-1, Santos played his first minutes of the 2022 season at winger. This allowed Will Sands to stay at fullback and Santos to play more offensively. Santos looked good, showing his speed and ability to cover ground from his first steps onto the field.
His return creates a few questions. First, does this mean that Sands’ defense could keep him in the lineup and allow the Black & Gold more options on the attack? Porter didn’t answer the question on Santos returning to fullback.
“Obviously I played him on the wings,” said Porter sarcastically. “So, it’s certainly something we’re looking at, right?”
It seems more likely that Santos returns as a fullback, looking at when the team has played well in 2022. Wingers Derrick Etienne Jr. and Luis Diaz have both had strong performances as the consistent starting duo up top.
If Santos does play more minutes as a winger, it gives defenses a different look than Diaz running behind defenders and Santos serving into the penalty box will draw more attention towards the sidelines.
The final piece of a potential Santos return to the wing is longevity. Santos was arguably one of the best fullbacks in the league until sustaining two injures that took him out for multiple weeks at a time. Moving the 34 year old away from a role that requires running the length of the field for 90 minutes to a more compact winger position could give Columbus more Santos minutes.