The Columbus Crew was back on the road for the third week of the Major League Soccer season. After getting the team’s first win of the year last week at Lower.com Field against D.C. United, the Black & Gold earned a point at BMO Field against Toronto FC in a 1-1 draw.
After giving up a first half goal to TFC forward Deandre Kerr, Columbus responded in what was a rather controlled second half, especially on the road. The Crew found an equalizer from Jimmy Medranda in the 75th minute and was unlucky to not get a second goal.
It was another positive step for the Black & Gold under first-year head coach Wilfried Nancy. Let’s take a look at the biggest takeaways from the game.
Wing back remains unsolved
Nancy named an unchanged lineup from the team that got the win at home against D.C. last week. This featured Mohamed Farsi at right wing back and Yaw Yeboah at left wing back with Week 1 starter Will Sands still out with back spasms. While Farsi appears to be locked in on the right, neither is the ideal player for these roles but rather both have started games because of a lack of other options.
Yeboah was once again inconsistent playing at wing back. Having shifted over to the left side, the former winger is not as effective in the attack as he started to be before getting hurt last season. He did not find his target on either of his crosses and struggled to provide much down the wing. Defensively, Yeboah puts in the work some of the time but isn’t refined enough on that side of things to help his team win the ball back. Too frequently, he was out of position at Toronto and the home side made it a point to attack his side.
It was Yeboah stepping too high but not actually putting pressure or attempting to tackle TFC’s Richie Laryea that opened the space for the Reds’ goal in the match. This forced central midfielder Aidan Morris to step into Yeboah’s left back spot and left and opening for Jonathan Osorio to step into and get an assist.
It’s interesting that Nancy has elected to start Yeboah as a left wing back in consecutive weeks. Fellow natural (although also normally on the right side) winger Luis Diaz was the first wide player off the bench in Week 1 and came in for Yeboah last week. Diaz, however, did not make the bench for this game, possibly dealing with an injury.
The answer at the position could have come in the form of Medranda, who made his first appearance for the Crew coming on for Yeboah in the 73rd minute. Medranda was the Black & Gold’s major offseason free agent signing and was expected to step into the left wing back role after his time with the Seattle Sounders and Sporting Kansas City.
It was clear how different things were with Medranda on the field. It wasn’t just on the goal, although that was a great example, but the understanding of the movement and when to make runs forward but also the effort to get back and help was noticeably different from Medranda. Perhaps his coming off the bench is a sign that Medranda is moving toward taking over that role.
And while Farsi has been much better at right wing back, he is still not Columbus’ best option at the position. Steve Moreira was one of the best fullbacks in MLS last season and would make sense in that wing back role, while also bringing much more experience than Farsi. At the moment, Moreria is being asked to play center back, but still attempts to get involved offensively in certain moments, such as his shot on target against Toronto.
It’s possible that Nancy prefers to have a center back who is a bit more mobile and can make runs forward — as he did last year on the left with CF Montreal — but it’s equally as possible that Moreria is the best option at that position now. Center back Josh Williams has not been healthy and the Crew just recently acquired Gustavo Vallecilla. If either of them proves they could play this right center back role, it would free Moreira to move to wing back and give the Black & Gold just a bit more quality in that position.
Cucho needs to get going
Last week in this piece, I discussed the movement of the front three and how Cucho Hernandez’s versatility as a forward allows for the interchanging of positions which makes Columbus’ attack hard to defend. This is all true and was on display again against Toronto. The problem is that the movement may be taking the Crew’s best goal scoring option away from the positions that allow him to score goals.
Through three games this year, Hernandez has taken 13 shots with only two on target. That’s a 15 percent clip of his shots being on frame. By comparison, 34 percent of Hernandez’s shots last season were on target. And while this is a small sample size, it’s notable that the Designated Player forward isn’t doing the things MLS pays Designated Player forwards to do.
Too often in this game, Hernadez was not in a position to score when the Black & Gold went on the attack. The Colombian dropped deep frequently, which did free up space for Lucas Zelarayan and Alexandru Matan to take on the No. 9 space he vacated, but neither of them, especially Matan, are the finisher of Hernandez.
While Nancy clearly wants his front three to be mobile and be in constant movement, that can’t take Hernandez away from what he does best. The striker needs to spend most of his time in front of goal looking to finish chances. Against TFC, only two of his five shots were dangerous and only one of those two was target. Additionally, only one of the attempts came from a central position and none were inside the six-yard box.
There is certainly a reason to move Hernandez around the front three positions but Columbus needs him to be the danger man he was after his arrival last season. Hernandez must recognize when it makes sense to make runs to wide positions but also be aware that he needs to be in the penalty box to be the one finishing chances more often.
Aidan Morris continues to grow in front of our eyes
The expectation was that this would be a big year for Morris. With Artur gone, he is now the clear partner with Darlington Nagbe in the Crew’s central midfield, meaning he is a weekly starter for the first time in his young career. His United States National Team debut in January was a shot of confidence for a player entering what is really only his third professional season after missing all of 2021 with a knee injury.
Morris looked the part in the first two games of the season and did so again on Saturday. Going up against Michael Bradley and Mark-Anthony Kaye, two of MLS’s best defensive midfielders, Morris did not back down and delivered a man of the match performance that also earned him a bench spot on the MLS Team of the Matchday.
In addition to his assist, finding the well-time run of Medranda with a well-weighted pass, Morris helped the Black & Gold dominate possession (56 percent) on the road by completing 95 percent of his passes. He was a part of two chances created, including the goal, and began to show his range with some well-played long balls. He continues to work hard defensively, tracking back and getting into tackles, not afraid to commit a smart foul if necessary.
Morris is going to continue to learn under Nancy and he and Nagbe will further their partnership in the midfield, but the Homegrown product is playing as well as anyone on the Columbus roster early in the season.