It took longer than most would have expected and certainly would have liked, but Columbus got their first victory of the season two weeks ago and duly followed it up this week with their second of the campaign against a 10-man Houston Dynamo. The old adage “a win is a win” certainly reigns true here, but the three points paper over some cracks as well. If the Crew want to have any chance of repeating their incredible run to the MLS Cup last year, some improvements will have to be made.
In some ways the match against Houston was a microcosm of the Crew’s season so far. To say that they dominated the match would be an understatement, but the score sheet still only read 1-0. All season so far (it’s early I know) the Crew have seemed a bit uncomfortable in front of goal, snatching at chances that would have found the back of the net a year ago.
This phenomenon is hard to explain normally, but maybe even more so due to the fact that the Crew retained all of its attacking talent. Crucial goal contributors Kei Kamara, Justin Meram, Ethan Finlay, and Federico Higuain were all kept on the books even though the future of a couple was less than clear. The club’s clinical edge in front of goal however must have taken its talents elsewhere (it still hurts, LeBron).
On Saturday night the Crew had their way with Houston in a way which is rarely seen. They made the list for top ten highest possession percentages (since it starting being kept in 2011) in MLS history with 73.4% of the ball, 589 (almost triple that of the Dynamo) attempted passes, 87% of which were completed and 78% of those were completed in the attacking third. The gold and black also managed 11 shots (six on target), with some concrete chances, including a brilliant team move which was just offside, but still, only a penalty separated the two sides in the end.
Now, I know its only seven games into the season, but here are some numbers from the Columbus attack.
Kei Kamara and Ethan Finlay, both integral part of last season’s success, are finding 2016 to be a bit tougher than last year. In 2015 Finaly averaged .37 goals, and 1.76 shots per 90 minutes with a shot accuracy of 60%. This year? .16 goals scored, a shot accuracy of 36% and more shots taken per 90 with 1.93.
A player who was key to the Eastern conference champions is simply not being clinical in front of goal thus far. Last year Finlay was an excellent compliment to the Crew going forward and I think his success could be directly proportional to that of the Crew.
Kamara’s numbers have dropped as well. His goals per 90 has fallen from .74 to .44 and his shot accuracy from 52% to 39%. He had an amazing year in 2015, but this drop is certainly palpable on the pitch. The entire team as a unit was not sharp either though. An incredible tally of nine offside calls showcased a Columbus side which is still shaking off the rust.
A bright spot though could come in the form of Iraqi international, Justin Meram. Mysteriously left out of the starting 11 for the first several matches, he has made his way back into the side the last few games and the results have taken a turn for the better.
It may be a coincidence, but Meram is statistically performing at a higher level than he was last year. In 2016 he boasts .42 goals scored and assists created, 3.34 shots, 1.67 chances created per 90 minutes, and a shot accuracy of 83%. All of these are up from last year with goals and shot accuracy rising significantly. Meram and his clinical eye for goal could prove to be a key component in the Crew’s 2016 campaign, especially if his finishing rubs off on his team mates.
“It was a different win, definitely, It was a weird win. When they went down a man, they stayed really compact and made it difficult for us at times, but we kept our heads in it and we didn’t make any bonehead mistakes. It was a professional game by us and I think we just killed the time with possession and they really didn’t have an answer.”- Justin Meram
It is not all doom and gloom and there are certainly some things to go forward with for Gregg Berhalter’s side. Berhalter, Wil Trapp, and Meram all hailed their “professional” victory on Saturday and while this is often a cliché, the performance was indeed commendable from a defensive perspective.
When asked if he was disappointed that his side didn’t get a second goal with Houston playing “pretty” defensively, Berhalter’s sarcastic response of “pretty, pretty, defensively?!” is all you need to know.
Having lost a man to an early red card the Dynamo certainly set out to stop the bleeding and it was always going to be a challenge to break down a side like that. When you’re in the opposition half as much as the Crew were on Saturday, it is easy to let your guard down and get caught on the break. Columbus never lost sight of the task at hand and didn’t allow themselves to be taken advantage of by a side adept at just that.
Lastly, Columbus’ ability to get results at Mapfre stadium should be a big part of their success. Last year the Crew was a completely different team on the road. They found it incredibly hard to come by points away from home, but in Columbus they were unstoppable. The momentum from playing at home thrust them to a playoff spot and was definitely a factor in their great playoff run. Fortunately for the Crew, this is something that they can continue to play on as the ‘fre’ should be a fortress for the foreseeable future.
If the Crew want to make another run in the MLS playoffs then their attack will have to become much more potent in front of goal. A side that often was smooth and casual in their attack can’t quite seem to make things work so far. The good news though is that this is a solvable problem, especially when buoyed by strong home form and an adequate back line. I wasn’t convinced at the start of the season, but I do think this Crew side can make some splashes again. We’ll just have to wait and see.