Saturday night may have marked the unofficial end from a playoff contention standpoint for Columbus Crew SC.
The Black and Gold blew an early lead, letting in three unanswered goals as the club fell 3-1 to the Vancouver Whitecaps in front of 15,589 at MAPFRE Stadium. It marked the third straight time in the series that Vancouver has emerged victorious in Columbus.
The game was originally scheduled to get underway at 6 PM ET. But a horrendous downpour moved through the Columbus area about 90 minutes before kickoff. It left the field significantly water-logged and pushed back the start of the game by exactly 100 minutes.
Columbus Crew SC Playoff Hopes Take Critical Blow in 3-1 Loss to Vancouver
Though the pre-match lineup sheet indicated a 4-2-3-1, it appeared on the field that manager Gregg Berhalter had Crew SC set up in a 3-4-3 formation for this game. He confirmed the move post-game.
Though Nicolai Naess was listed as a defensive midfielder, he seemed to drop deeper at times, acting as a third center back with Gaston Sauro and captain Michael Parkhurst. The two fullbacks, Corey Ashe and Harrison Afful, lined up more advanced and acted more as shuttling two-way wingers.
Regular starters Federico Higuain and Wil Trapp were not available. Trapp continues to deal with concussion symptoms while Higuain has been dealing with inflammation associated with recent hernia surgery.
From the onset, it became readily apparent that the home team was going to own the lion’s share of the ball. With the two teams over six percent apart in average possession per game (Crew SC 54.1, Vancouver 47.8), that didn’t come as much of a surprise. And it didn’t take long for that possession to become purposeful.
11 minutes into the game, the Black and Gold initiated the scoring. It came off a brilliantly executed corner kick from midfielder Mohammed Saeid. The Swede serviced it into the box right onto the foot of an onrushing Ola Kamara, who one-timed it past ‘Caps goalkeeper David Ousted karate kick style.
The lead didn’t last long though. Two minutes later, Russell Teibert sent in a cross from the left side of the field. The fairly innocuous ball was misjudged by Sauro, who unexpectedly headed it towards goalkeeper Steve Clark. Unable to react in time, it squirted past him into the net for an own goal.
The two teams went into halftime all knotted up despite Vancouver not having a single shot on goal. Columbus finished the half with 66.3 percent possession and a nearly 20 percent edge in accurate passes. But, as they say, the most important stat of them all is the scoreline.
And in the second half, that all-important number would eventually turn against Crew SC. In the 74th minute, it was Andrew Jacobson who became a super sub of sorts. The midfielder who had entered the game for Teibert 19 minutes earlier, found himself with plenty of space to dribble towards the Columbus box. He then weaved past Naess, aimed and belted the ball past Clark from about 20 yards for the lead.
The misery wouldn’t end there.
Another second half sub, Erik Hurtado, doubled the Vancouver advantage eight minutes after Jacobson’s strike. Taking advantage of some poor clearing off a Christian Bolaños corner, Hurtado found the ball right in front of his feet and made no mistake finishing. The tally was his first since September 13, 2014 and just his sixth since being drafted by Vancouver in 2013.
The inability to protect leads has been a frustratingly continuous occurrence for Crew SC in 2016. What transpired in this game was just another haunting example. It marked the eighth time this season that Columbus led a game at some point, only to either draw or outright lose the game altogether.
Berhalter attributed this to a lack of desperation associated with where the club is situated in the table.
“If you look at the matchup, it’s two teams in very similar situations fighting for their lives trying to set up the last part of the season,” the Crew SC boss told Andrew King of MLSSoccer.com. “And I just didn’t see enough urgency.”
There’s no doubt that the absences at key positions were problematic. Not having Higuain’s chance generation skills and Trapp’s industry as well as passing prowess certainly could’ve been looked at as a disadvantage. But Berhalter didn’t want to use that as a reason for not being able to get a result out of such an important game.
“Missing Higuain is always an issue because he’s a very good player,” Berhalter told Last Word On Sports. “Missing Wil hurt as well but, again, those are just excuses.”
“I said it last week and I’ll say it again. To think, to even say that we couldn’t have won the game without those guys is doing a disservice to the guys that were actually on the field.”
Crew SC captain Michael Parkhurst seemed to echo that sentiment, particularly since other teams have issues of their own on the injury front.
“Of course you want to have everybody healthy. But I’m not sure many teams in the league right now this late in the season are 100 percent healthy,” Parkhurst said. “Injuries, suspensions and the rest of it (are problems) but it’s about stepping up and right now we’re not.”
With seven games left and the club still eight points behind the red line, it’s getting increasingly more difficult to reverse course in a season that’s having more and more of a lost feel to it.
The Black and Gold return to action next Saturday with a road fixture against Orlando City SC. The game kicks off at 7:30 PM ET at Camping World Stadium.
Photo courtesy of Columbus Crew SC Communications.