What Are They All About? Columbus Crew SC
A lack of accountability. This past weekend the Chicago Fire Soccer Club lost at SeatGeek Stadium, ending an eight-match undefeated streak at home. The 2-1 result against FC Cincinnati—the worst team in the league based on points—saw Chicago drop to tenth place in the East. As the final third of the season approaches, the playoff race is still tight but dropped points against sides of that caliber will certainly come back to haunt you. Beyond statistics and table math, the performance was a listless one as a weather delay, empty stands, and a lack of passion from the players made for what can only be called a vintage display by this organization’s standards.
Despite a continued tumble in the standings, the setting on Veljko Paunovic’s hotseat seems set perpetually to warm-ish while General Manager and President Nelson Rodriguez manages to find positives lurking behind even the darkest realities. With little allocation monies available and depreciating high end assets running down their contracts, the Fire will have to trade assets such as Mo Adams in order to remain active in the summer window. The Fire have another chance at feigning interest in the postseason as they host the Columbus Crew this Wednesday (7:00 CT on ESPN+).
The Crew are perhaps the only side in MLS that has disappointed its constituents more than the Fire. The production to talent ratio displayed by Columbus is mind boggling. A side that has made deep playoff runs in three of the last four years, including an MLS Cup Final appearance, sits 11th in the East, solely on goal differential. A team that has not changed much from last season’s successful side now has the worst points per game ratio in the league. All of this of course is on the back of an historic Save the Crew movement which saw grassroots organizing force MLS to think twice about relocating the franchise and a new ownership group commit to expanding the brand.
Caleb Porter was brought in to head up a long-term project that was to build on the stability of seasons past. A hot start saw them lose just once in their first six matches as everything seemed to be running smoothly. However, as Porter tried to implement his style more and more, the team and many of its long-term personnel have not reacted well. A 3-0 home loss to LAFC, a score line which arguably could have been six or seven to zero, proved to be a turning point. The Crew are winless in their last nine league matches and things seem to be spiraling out of control. The three points available on Wednesday could salvage a season, start a turnaround, and save jobs, but who will get them? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Columbus Form Guide (All Competitions): L-L-L-L-L
Previous Result: A 1-0 away loss to Orlando.
Formation: 4-3-3; Bendik; Francis, Sauro, Wiiliams, Afful; Artur, Trapp, Guzman; Argudo, Zardes, Santos
Strengths: As with last weekend’s opponents, it is hard to heap praise on a side that finds itself so low in the standings. However, with the tactical abilities and league pedigree exhibited by Porter, there are always positives to pick out of the woodwork. Additionally, the talent in the side is undeniable and perhaps it can be flipped on in an instant.
Sweet Sweet Revenge: When David Accam was traded to the Philadelphia Union in 2018 it was a gut punch for the Ghanaian. He had his sights set on a European move after an electrifying 2017 and three exceptional years of service to a Fire side that made him promises they could not deliver on. Instead of a move to Germany or Turkey, the Fire deemed his value to be greater within the league and shipped him to Philly for allocation money. The devastation of that move showed up on the field for Accam as he scored just one goal in thirteen appearances for the Union. That stint, perhaps not so ironically, included a game winner against the Fire. After four goals in four starts for the Union this year, Accam’s MLS value grew again, and he was dealt to 2020 expansion side Nashville SC who loaned him out to Columbus for the duration of the season. Wednesday will be an occasion for Accam to reflect on what might have been and to once again play spoiler in a city that he still loves.
Stretch the Field: In addition to Accam’s pace, the Crew also have Pedro Santos available to them on the opposite flank. If Porter asks his charges to widen the field and the midfield three can play diagonals across lines, Chicago’s lack of true fullbacks could be exposed. This is especially true of the potential to exploit the Fire on the counter with Przemek Frankowski pushing high and Aleksandar Katai seemingly refusing to track back. Look for overlapping runs from Harrison Afful and Waylon Francis as well.
Weaknesses: There is no way around it, this Crew side has hit rock bottom. Two losses to Orlando in two weeks catapulted the Floridians into the playoff picture at the expense of a Crew side that saw those encounters as opportunities to dig themselves out of a hole. Sandwiched between those was a home loss to a Seattle reserve side which truly showed the gulf in class between various clubs in the league. Let’s see where they might struggle on Wednesday.
Coming Up Short: While we love getting into the minutia of soccer tactics, analyzing statistics, and sharing player profiles, at the end of the day, soccer is a simple game. There are two goals, a round ball, and twenty-two players aiming to place the latter into the former. For the Crew, goals have been few and far between this season and if you can’t score, you won’t win. With just seventeen goals on the season—a 0.8 goals per game ratio—Columbus could still set an MLS record for the lowest GPG ratio in league history.
With Gyasi Zardes' large contract and DP status, much of Columbus’ goalscoring hopes have been placed on his shoulders. Needless to say, his form from seasons past, including his nineteen-tally haul from 2018, has not been replicated. While his six goals so far this season isn’t a terrible return, his form has been streaky and has required an average of five shots per goal he has scored. Additionally, an extended absence with the Gold Cup squad has highlighted the Crew’s reliance on him, going scoreless in that time.
Patrick Mullins seems to be past his prime, if he ever had one, and JJ Williams has not been integrated as smoothly as you would hope for someone under the tutelage of Porter. Their lack of finishing is no secret and it saw the Crew dip into the transfer market early to add some competition up top. Romario Williams was acquired from Atlanta in a deal that was struck before the window even opened and Jordan Hamilton was acquired from Toronto last week. Although they may add to the team in the future, giving either one their first start on Wednesday will instill a learning curve for the new arrivals.
Just Tear It Off: When Gregg Berhalter left the Crew to take charge of the USMNT, many US fans were excited about the tactical stability offered by the stalwart coach. Crew fans were appropriately upset at his departure, albeit with feelings of pride mixed in, but knew that their system and squad were being left in a good place no matter who took charge next. Well, after initially preaching stability and continuity, Caleb Porter slowly started placing his own spin on the team, as any coach is expected to do. However, his shift from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3 with two wingers up front has not been received well by the players and arguably does not fit the personnel available to Porter. He seems to have gathered as much recently, switching back to a 4-2-3-1 against Atlanta in the Open Cup quarter final and against Seattle at home in MLS last week. Frustrating results in those matches saw the 4-3-3 return against Orlando but once again, the finishing touch was missing. Moreover, with the preferred midfield three being Artur, David Guzman, and Will Trapp, three defensive minded midfielders, there is a large disconnected between the middle of the park and the attackers.
Yes, we realize that with Federico Higuain out for the season, the traditional ten role is a gaping hole at the moment, but the Crew have the assets to cover for that in the market. As of yet, they haven’t made that move and it is hurting them. Pedro Santos has been trotted out at the ten but it has not worked as he is not as comfortable in the center of the pitch and has difficulty threading that final pass. For the time being, the 4-3-3 is likely to be back and with it, the Crew’s struggles will continue.
Prediction: This encounter has a lot at stake. It won’t be pretty, and it won’t be decisive. Chicago 1-1 Columbus. Gyasi Zardes for the visitors. CJ Sapong for the hosts. The point will be enough to keep both projects alive.