The Columbus Crew SC squandered a chance to add some breathing room between them and the teams chasing their position in the Eastern Conference standings after being blanked at home by FC Dallas in front of a national television audience.
Adding insult to injury, although it wasn’t apparent until after the final whistle blew, was losing newly signed defender Gaston Sauro to a concussion in the third minute after knocking heads with teammate Wil Trapp. Sporting Director/Head Coach Gregg Berhalter described it as a traumatic head injury twenty-four hours post-match, after Sauro was released from the hospital. This is not the sort of debut one would like to see this close to the playoffs.
This was on-top of the Crew SC doing without the services of eight players, including MLS-leading goal scorer, and key forward Kei Kamara (18). Midfielder Wil Trapp played in the Under-23 match in England three days prior to the match versus Dallas, and flew back to play to start in Sunday’s loss.
Although Columbus controlled the flow of play early, they were seemingly unable to mount a challenge on an early turning point. With forward Jack McInerney earning a penalty kick, some may say it was a gift, in the 24th minute, Crew SC designated player forward Federico Higuain missed after pushing his shot wide. In his career with Columbus, Higuain is 13 of 19 (68.4%) from the penalty spot.
Dallas promptly gathered steam and took the lead less than three minutes later on a corner kick. Readily apparent was the absence of Kamara, one of the team’s best defenders on set pieces due to his ability to get above his opposition.
“I’m extremely disappointed with the result, but I’m not disappointed with the effort,” coach Gregg Berhalter said. “It’s a good lesson for us, it really is. There was a moment that we didn’t handle well, that first corner kick, and that’s the game right there.
“We’ve got to get that stuff right. If we have any intentions of making the playoffs, and going far in the playoffs, you’ve got to get set pieces right. That was an example of not getting it right.”
Mistakes can be forgiven, although at this late stage of the season, those mistakes need to be minimized. One detriment to their run of play is conceding goals on counter-attacks. Unfortunately, it was the little things that sealed their fate.
The second half became an almost-regression to earlier in the season. Passes were somewhat haphazard and off their intended mark, their crosses weren’t great and the team was unable to finish. Defensively, they were under pressure, much as they have been for the majority of the season. With six matches remaining before the playoffs, this display wasn’t necessarily a confidence booster.
“On the offensive side, we weren’t quite sharp enough,” midfielder Ethan Finlay said. “We struggled with the final pass and we missed some great opportunities tonight. Not just the PK, not just Jack’s, there were opportunities that I had and that other guys had. We just weren’t sharp and then flip side, on the defensive side, just transition moments. They were happy with 1-0 and I think they were shocked to be up 3-0.”
With the return of the players from national team duty, the hope is that the Crew SC can put the 3-nil loss behind them and move forward. While the loss cannot be simply chalked-up to the missing players, their absence left a gaping void that the rest of the team was unable to fill.
Traveling further than any of his teammates, forward Justin Meram scored in both matches he played as a member of the Iraq National Team. He traveled to the Far East, scoring his first international goal versus Chinese Taipei, before scoring again against Thailand. But now he is back in the fold for the stretch run.
For their final six matches, Columbus (41 points) travels to Philadelphia (30 points) for a match Saturday against the Union in PPL Park. Philadelphia is 11 points behind the Crew SC and locked in a tight battle for the sixth and final playoff position in the East.
Going into the weekend, Columbus find themselves merely four points behind first place D.C. United (44 points), a team they play twice over the final stretch of games. They play the Portland Timbers at home (September 26) before hitting the road to Red Bull Arena the following week. Ahead of the Crew SC by one point are the New York Red Bulls (42 points), and they are looking to solidify their hold on 2nd place, if not grab 1st place outright from United. The Red Bulls also have three games-in-hand on Columbus going into this weekend.
The Crew SC has one more bye week (October 10/11) before the last two matches. Traveling north of the border for the final time in the regular season, Columbus does battle with Toronto FC (5th place, 37 points) before returning home for the regular season finale against D.C. United on October 25.
With last week’s match televised nationally on FS1, there was the rare (for Columbus this season) national perspective from analysts John Strong and former Crew goalkeeper Brad Friedel. After the match, they pinpointed what’s ailing the club this year.
“Talking to Columbus players,” said Strong, “the general feeling, we asked what you need to do to make this run the last two months and they said, ‘Goal scoring is going to come. We know we can create chances and we know we can score. It’s a matter of defending.’ The fact of the matter is that’s now 47 goals conceded this year by Columbus, only Orlando have more in MLS.”
Friedel added, “That’s why in the pregame show I circled (Tony) Tchani. When you have so much going forward and backward, your holding midfielder is so important. Can he go box-to-box and break-up counter-attacks? This Columbus team is susceptible to counter-attacks.”
While Columbus is almost assured of making the playoffs, if they don’t get better defensively, their post-season run may be a short-lived one. With the club striving to move forward, a first round exit would be unacceptable.