Although a matchup against last season’s MLS Cup Final runner-up was never going to be easy, it’s clear that a 4-1 drubbing at the hands of the Philadelphia Union was not what the Columbus Crew faithful anticipated to begin 2023. A few questionable penalty kick calls from center referee Lukasz Szpala and VAR Kevin Stott made the match a frustrating watch for fans. But players, as well as head coach Wilfried Nancy, acknowledged that the team can learn from Saturday’s match and improve.
Midfielder Darlington Nagbe, who captained the side against the Union, spoke highly about the Crew’s play in the first half but noted where the Black & Gold faulted.
“Strong first half, a lot to build off of that first half. No excuses; the two penalties and goals changed the game,” Nagbe said. “I thought we had a great preseason. In the games that we played, we did really well. It was the first time we had some adversity and I thought we didn’t handle it too well but, like I said, go back to that first half, build off of that.”
As for what changed for the Crew in the second half, Nagbe referenced a shift in the Union’s style of play.
“I think they started to press a little higher. But I think when they do that we can be a little braver,” he said, “continue to try to play out the back. But if we can’t because they’re pressing so well, can we be better on the ball, finding the passes behind the first line?”
Head coach Wilfried Nancy addressed Saturday’s loss at a press conference on Tuesday, and spoke about the importance of making and learning from mistakes from the first game.
“It’s a farce to say, ‘We don’t make mistakes.’ Everyone makes mistakes all the time. For me, the idea is to step back and to live with this experience because, for me, this is the only way that we can have success,” Nancy said. “The idea is, yes, we conceded four goals. On the four goals, we can tell that we made mistakes. But the goal that we scored, Philly made mistakes also.”
Nancy said he wants his side to continue playing with the same style but to learn from what went wrong against the Union.
“So for me, what’s the most important is, the two goals that we conceded on the counter attack, I told them that I want them to keep going and to play in the middle if they have to play in the middle,” Nancy said. “Now, they have to be more composed and now we were able to analyze deeper what they could have done better.”
Nancy handed 21-year-old goalkeeper Patrick Schulte his MLS debut against Philadelphia, after a stellar season with Crew 2 last year in which the team won the inaugural MLS NEXT Pro championship and Schulte won the league’s Goalkeeper of the Year award. Although the result wasn’t what either would have hoped for, Nancy stuck by his decision to play Schulte and said this experience will help him further down the line.
“It was a good experience for him knowing that he has the potential for the future. But again, he needs this kind of game also because it’s easy to talk, it’s easy to say to a player, ‘You have to do this, you have to do that.’ But most of the time, as a human being, we have to live the situation,” Nancy said. “The coach that I am and the person that I am, I have no problem to put a player in knowing that, yes, it was his first game, but for me, he has the level to play at this level.”
Defender Milos Degenek became the center of attention in the 67th minute after Union attacker Kai Wagner’s shot grazed off of Degenek’s hand. Stott told Szpala to check the monitor and eventually he awarded Philadelphia a penalty kick that brought the game to 3-1.
“Obviously it’s not ideal to concede a goal right before half time which I think, again, a weak penalty,” Degenek said of the first penalty awarded on a different handball on wing back Mohamed Farsi. “Nowadays, football has become so fragile. You can’t even defend, you can’t do nothing, everything is awarded a penalty, things are yellow cards that before were not yellow cards. Again, they’re not excuses but it is the way it is… It’s hard to put it into words without swearing and without losing my head but I just think it’s a bit weak. It’s human nature, you’re gonna put your hands up.”
With this being just the first game of the regular season, Degenek acknowledged there are many more games to play and said the younger players can benefit from this experience.
“There’s 33 odd games left, it’s a long season,” the center back said. “It’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint. It changes the fact just that we learn, some of the younger guys gain experience, and just it shows us where we are in terms of the stuff that we’re trying to do. It’s going to help us improve over the next couple of days in training and next couple of weeks as well in the season. I think this team can only get better.”
Degenek spoke highly of the debutants and other young players for their efforts against the Union and aims to help them quickly move on from the loss.
“I’d like to give a shout-out to Patty (Schulte) the goalkeeper, Phil (Quinton) on their debuts, I thought they were wonderful. I wish them many more games in the MLS. We had quite a young side, we had Mo Farsi and Will (Sands) and Aidan (Morris). I wish these boys all the best,” Degenek said. “I hope this game doesn’t affect them much. I hope this game is just another little learning curve and we’ll help them over the next couple of days to get out of it.”