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What We Learned: Crew vs. D.C. United

We give our takeaways as the Black & Gold got their first win of the 2023 MLS season.

Ralph Schudel - Massive Report

The Columbus Crew opened the home portion of the 2023 Major League Soccer season on Saturday night, dazzling the fans at Field. The Black & Gold defeated longtime Eastern Conference rival D.C. United by a final score of 2-0 for the club’s first win of the new year and a first victory under new head coach Wilfried Nancy.

After losing 4-1 in the opener at the Philadelphia Union, Columbus made an early statement against United, who showed plenty of fight in the team’s first game for a comeback 3-2 win against Toronto FC. Playmaker Lucas Zelarayan got the Crew on the board early, finishing off a 10th minute chance. The Argentine then doubled the home side’s lead just before halftime with a stunning finish into the roof of the net. The Black & Gold defense did enough in the second half to hold on to the shutout and see out the win.

Let’s dive into what we learned from the match.

Attacking tactical flexibility

The front three of forward Cucho Hernandez and attacking midfielders Zelarayan and Alexandru Matan did not lead to much in the way of production in the opener, but the trio was much better against D.C. It was clear that another week of working together in training and watching what didn’t work against Philadelphia helped take a step in the right direction.

What was also clear against United was the flexibility that these three can provide each other, something Nancy has said he wants from his attacking players. Hernandez has experience, both with his previous club and with the Colombian national team, of playing as a wide attacking player on the left. Zelarayan is able to play further forward than most classic No. 10s when needed and has proven his scoring ability during his time with Columbus. Matan is proving capable of floating around in the pocket underneath the forward early on this season and popping up in good spots.

Hernandez spent much of the first half drifting wide left, looking to pull defenders with him and open space for other attackers. This worked to perfection on the Crew’s opening goal when Hernandez attacked from the left, cutting the ball back to the center of the penalty box for Zelarayan. And while the Argentine still had work to do with an impressive turn and finish, the play doesn’t work if Hernandez isn’t comfortable playing out wide, taking on defenders and distributing from the channels.

As the game progressed, Hernandez moved into other positions as well, popping up on the right and dropping deep. He created chances from both of these spots, firing wide from the right wing and exploding into the 18-yard box for a diving header that was saved. His movement not only opens up room for others to attack but also makes it hard for defenders to mark a non-stationary striker.

It was a different kind of movement from the front three, but equally impressive that led to Zelarayan’s second. This time it was Matan pulling into the pocket between United’s backline and midfield to receive a pass from right center back Steven Moreira. Matan took his space and played a through ball into the penalty box that may have been intended for the overlapping wing back Mohamed Farsi but found Zelarayan who turned and finished with power.

The three most attacking Crew players used their movement with and off the ball to create dangerous chances all game against D.C.

With the defenders initially focused on Zelarayan at the top of the 18-yard box and Hernandez dropped back in the No. 10 role, Matan had the space to break the line on the dribble. As attention turned to the young Romanian, Zelarayan was able to make his diagonal run to get on the end of Matan’s pass.

These types of movements caused issues for D.C.’s defenders throughout the game, not just on the goals. As chemistry continues to grow between Zelarayan, Hernandez and Matan, plus other attacking players, the Crew’s offense is going to be more difficult to keep in check. This was a good indication of what this group can be with the talented players on the roster and Nancy encouraging the freedom of movement from his attackers.

Defense is still in need of some tinkering

While the offense found some footing against United, the defense is still a work in progress. While that may sound strange after the Black & Gold recorded the team’s first shutout of the year, there were some nervy moments at the back and it’s clear the Columbus backline is still learning how to play as a group of three center backs under Nancy.

While D.C. was unable to capitalize, the visitors did manage eight shots, two more than Columbus, with three on goal. Against some of MLS’s better attacking players, it’s likely Eloy Room, who made his first start in goal of the season after missing last week’s game, would have been challenged more than he was.

Milos Degenek is the leader and central figure of the back three and his communication with those around him is needed. This has been important but Degenek is still learning the keys of Nancy’s back three. Philip Quinton continues to be a young player who had a better second game than his MLS debut a week ago. Quinton got caught watching the ball while an attacker gets behind him at times in the game, which is something he has to continue to be aware. Moreria is still adjusting to a center back role and what that means for him. He pushed up the field at times but will have to continue to find his connection with Degenek as a true defender and not a fullback.

There is a bit of nitpicking going on in critiquing the backline that overall played well against D.C. But the Crew will face more explosive and dangerous attackers and will need to continue to refine how this back three will play.

Creativity with positions

Nancy has already shown that just because a player is thought of playing one position, he is not concerned with moving them into a role that the head coach believes is better for the team. Matan played almost exclusively as a winger and is now lining up more centrally. Moreira had not played center back prior to Week 1.

There was another surprise on Saturday when Yaw Yeboah was deployed as a wing back. In his first year in MLS, Yeboah was a right winger, used as a more attacking player. And while his ability to get into the attack was likely part of the decision to start him at wing back in place of the injured Will Sands, Yeboah also had to work back and defend and do so on the left side of the field.

It wasn’t a perfect performance from Yeboah. Offensively, the Ghanian was not afraid to go forward, delivering four passes into the final third and completing one accurate long ball and he was involved on the left wing. Defensively, Yeboah didn’t win a tackle but made five recoveries and two interceptions.

There were questions about how Yeboah might fit into Nancy’s formation given that it doesn’t often use typical wingers. Like teammate Luis Diaz, Yeboah was going to have to show that he can do more than just play on the right wing. He clearly did that enough in practice to get a start on Saturday and played well enough that Nancy should be comfortable going with Yeboah again at wing back if needed.