What We Learned: Crew vs. New England Revolution

For the first time in four matches, the Columbus Crew didn’t win a game. That’s one way to look at Saturday’s 1-1 draw with the New England Revolution. The other is that the Crew managed a point out of a game that looked to be heading for no points and a first home loss of the season.

The Black & Gold saved it until late but a second half stoppage time header by midfielder Sean Zawadsi led to a 1-1 tie. This came while playing with a man advantage for most of the second half after a red card was shown to New England defender Dylan Borrero in the 65th minute.

Where there have been higher scoring and arguably more entertaining Columbus matches this year, this was one with plenty of talking points.

Let’s dive into What We Learned from the Crew’s tie with the Revolution.

A (needed?) wake up call for the Black & Gold

After the last three weeks, which included a 6-1 win against Atlanta United, a 4-0 victory against Real Salt Lake and 2-0 win on the road against D.C. United, Columbus was feeling itself a little bit. This is not meant as a negative. With play like that, any team would build some confidence and there were certainly reasons for the fanbase to be excited.

But Saturday brought everyone back to Earth a little bit.

The Crew remains a good team in the early portions of the 2023 MLS season, but also still very much a work in progress under first-year head coach Wilfried Nancy. New England, meanwhile, is an established group with a coach who has been around this league for a long time and has established what it takes for the Revolution to be successful over the last four-plus seasons.

The Revs, despite a down year last season, have been very good under Bruce Arena and have started this year the same. This game was always going to be a test for the Black & Gold and one the team passed, but not with flying colors.

Up until the red card, New England was the better team despite being on the road. The Revolution dictated the game in the first half and were unlucky not to be up by at least a goal. The Columbus backline was all of sorts, failing to mark New England attackers on multiple occasions and wasn’t punished thanks to poor shooting and some big saves from goalkeeper Patrick Schulte.

Offensively, there wasn’t much going on either. Even after the red card, when the Revs dropped deeper and packed the middle of the field, the Crew still didn’t pose much of a threat. While the Black & Gold had 21 shots, only seven were on target, one fewer than the visitors.

As it stands at the moment, Columbus looks like a team that will challenge for the MLS Cup playoffs, and should make it into the postseason, but the Revolution is a team that could contend for an MLS Cup this season. There was a clear difference in level between these two teams, similar to the opening game of the year against the Philadelphia Union.

In Year 1 under Nancy, the Crew is building something but this is a process. Teams like New England and Philadelphia are much further along in that process, which is understandable. This game was just a reminder that while the Black & Gold might beat up on the bottom of the MLS table, they are not at the top just yet.

The Mohamed Farsi/Steven Moreria combination

This is something I’ve been watching for the last few home games, as it’s easier to see in person than on television, but what Nancy is doing with Farsi (his right wing back) and Moreria (his right center back) is very interesting.

It appeared to be a bold choice in the preseason to move Moreira, who had never played center back in his career and didn’t exactly seem a fan of a switch, to this right center back spot. Traditionally, that would require him to stay at home defensively more than he’s done in his natural fullback position and help anchor at the back. But that’s not how Nancy has deployed Moreira.

Instead, he is allowing the right center back to go forward at moments and still be a part of the attack. At times, he steps into the midfield alongside Aidan Morris and Darlington Nagbe. At other points, Moreira will attack from wider areas, similar to what he did for Columbus in the past.

Farsi, meanwhile, can play off of Moreira. He is not always responsible for covering for the center back, but often either makes wide runs while Moreira pushes forward or underlaps to provide another more central option going forward.

There are drawbacks to this defensively. An example came on the Revolution goal when both Moreira and Farsi were caught upfield, allowing for space on New England’s attacking left side, which is where the cross came from that was inadvertently directed into the goal by Crew center back Milos Degenek. These are the risks the Black & Gold are willing to take with this tactic and not every team will be able to exploit that space as well as the Revs did — and frankly, Columbus handled it well for most of the game.

As the season progresses and Moreira and Farsi continue to develop chemistry with each other and a further understanding of what Nancy wants from them, it will be interesting to watch these two positionally and how they impact the Crew’s attack.

Missing Cucho

In the first four games Cucho Hernandez missed this year, the Black & Gold didn’t exactly miss the Designated Player striker. Columbus scored 13 goals in those contests with players such as Aidan Morris and Christian Ramirez stepping up to help carry the offense.

On Saturday, however, going up against the toughest opponent the Crew has played since Week 1, it was clear what the Black & Gold miss with Hernandez unavailable.

Without Hernandez on the field, defenses can key on Lucas Zelarayan more, limiting the effectiveness of the playmaker. Zelarayan also tends to force the issue more when he doesn’t have a player of Hernandez’s talent on the field. This often became the case in the time before Hernandez arrived in Columbus and it quickly became clear the burden he took off the Argentinean once he was in the lineup.

Ramirez has been a solid striker stepping in for Hernandez, and has done some good things with his hold-up play and movement. But Hernandez is much more dynamic, a better passer and an elite finisher.

While Hernandez doesn’t have a goal in his three games played this season, he is the Crew’s best attacking player and is paid to help take the offense to another level. The Balck & Gold were able to get by against struggling opponents without Hernandez but against the Revolution, it was clear how much Columbus missed the team’s highest-paid player and will need him back for this attack to be at its best.

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