The Columbus Crew tied yet again on Sunday afternoon, allowing the Portland Timbers to equalize in the last minute of stoppage time to bring the final score to 1-1 despite leading for much of the match. More dropped points could loom large for the Black & Gold as the MLS Cup playoffs draw nearer and Columbus find itself now on the wrong side of the postseason line.
The game was a tale of two halves, with some nuances tactically that we have seen before, but highlighted on the day. Let’s dive into what the team did in this match.
The impact of Kevin Molino
Molino’s ACL injury shortly after being signed by the Crew has to be one of the most unfortunate things for the team in recent years. Molino was coming off of a good stretch for Minnesota United and fans hoped that he could put the Black & Gold over the top in terms of attacking power.
Healthy now, however, fans are now seeing the player that the team hoped for when Molino was signed
Molino is a different kind of winger that head coach Caleb Porter has tried to utilize over the past few games. While he does have some pace, the Trinidad and Tobago international does his best work in the pockets. This means he often likes to find half spaces where he can receive the ball and play make, much like Lucas Zelarayan does centrally.
In this certain game, Molino was all over the pitch. Slated as a winger, he oftentimes instead drove towards the middle of the field and play almost as a second attacking midfielder with Zelarayan being allowed to roam freely.
This meant that left back Pedro Santos had more room down the wing to attack and get higher to use that talented left foot to whip in crosses. Molino occasionally held up the play angled toward the center of the pitch, and then gave Santos a through ball on the overlap to set up those crossing chances.
Molino plays a completely different role as a winger than Luis Diaz on the opposite side because they have different strengths. Diaz is more of a pacey, tricky, flash winger who will take multiple defenders on before dishing a pass or drawing a foul. Molino on the other hand prefers to slow play down and facilitate the ball to others while running off the ball and getting in scoring positions, as seen on his goal.
In the two back-to-back games he has started, Molino has looked comfortable in this role. The position battle between Molino and Derrick Etienne Jr. will be interesting to watch going forward.
Attacking Portland’s three center backs
One small adjustment to Porter’s style of play this week was the way the Black & Gold went about attacking Portland’s back three. The Timbers decided to go into this game in a 3-4-3 that easily became a 5-4-1 when the outside midfielders dropped back. For the most part though, Portland stuck with the three center backs with the midfielders helping, but not technically as defenders.
The change that Columbus made was to attack the away side by using overlapping and diagonal runs in behind the defenders. Recently, the Crew has typically attacked through right back Steven Moreira and left backs Pedro Santos or Will Sands down the wing, putting crosses and cutbacks into the penalty box. On Sunday, Columbus looked more dangerous when the buildup players played those slip through balls behind the Timber defense. Forward Cucho Hernandez had a great chance in the second minute off of one of these balls that he ended up chipping over the bar by a fractional margin.
These runs create problems for defenses with a back three because it requires a lot of communication. When these runners go in behind center backs, they are essentially running in the defender’s blind spot, so the only way to know where the player will be is by checking with a look over the shoulder or communication from another teammate.
These runs came to bite Portland on the Black & Gold’s goal in the first half. The point of attack was switched from the right wing to the left, and Zelarayan received the ball in a holdup position while Molino made an overlapping run in behind. None of Portland’s defenders communicated or checked their shoulders to see where Molino was, and he tucked the ball away for a well-earned goal.
These runs can be incredibly dangerous, but also run a higher risk of getting called for offside, as was the case on the disallowed Etienne goal in the second half. Nevertheless, the change helped Columbus take the lead in the game.
A tale of two halves
When the Crew went into the dressing room at halftime, those at Lower.com Field felt pretty good. The squad had controlled the game, created good chances, defended well and was up a gooal.
In the second half, the Black & Gold looked incredibly flat, lazy and unambitious going forward. Porter could be heard every time his team cleared the ball, urging his players to get up and press to get out of the team’s own half. This lack of enthusiasm gave Portland a foothold back into the game and a fighting chance to equalize.
There is not a tactical error here. There were no blatant coaching issues from Porter or his staff that caused Columbus to drop the team’s level; this time it’s on the players.
To be fair, the team did have attacking chances in the second half, but it wasn’t the domination of the first 45 minutes. Heavy legs or complacency could be possible excuses, but the Crew was outplayed in the second half.
One example of the difference is the position of the Black & Gold center backs. In the first half, Milos Degenek and Josh Williams were close to halfway up the field when the Timbers tried to clear their lines. In the second half, these two dropped back further. This shouldn’t be interpreted as a tactical switch, as it doesn’t make sense to have your defenders drop that far back when your team is playing so well.
This second half performance all came down to desire and energy, and Columbus was lacking. That’s why the Crew didn’t get a second goal, why the Black & Gold couldn’t clear their lines and why Portland equalized off of a poor defensive clearance.