What We Learned: Crew vs. Indy Eleven

The Columbus Crew began the team’s U.S. Open Cup run on Wednesday night at Lower.com Field and, despite some struggles finishing, remained alive in the competition. The Crew earned a 1-0 win against Indy Eleven to move on and will play Loudoun United in the fourth-round.

It was a frustrating game for the Black & Gold who registered 21 shots with eight on target but couldn’t find a goal until the 83rd minute. This came through wing back Mohamed Farsi, who came off the bench in the second half and was able to sneak an effort by Indy goalkeeper Yannik Oetti.

In a cup competition, what matters most is advancing and Columbus did that. But there were certainly plenty of takeaways from this match. Let’s dive into What We Learned.

Wilfried Nancy shows he cares about the Open Cup

Prior to Wednesday night’s match, head coach Wilfried Nancy stated that the Crew want to win every competition the team takes part and that his side would respect his opponent, even one from a lower league. Black & Gold fans have heard something similar from previous managers, but Nancy backed up the talk.

Columbus began the match with a stronger-than-expected starting 11. Designated Player Cucho Hernandez, captain Darlington Nagbe and center backs Milos Degenek and Steven Moreira — all routine starters in MLS play — played this game from the start. Many expected Nancy to go with a side that resembled Crew 2, the Black & Gold’s reserve team, against Indy, especially with an MLS game against Inter Miami on Saturday.

In the case of Hernandez, it was clear Nancy wanted to get the forward minutes after he missed more than a month with a knee injury. Hernandez played just 45 minutes as part of a plan to ease him back into action.

Nagbe, who did not start Columbus’ loss to Charlotte FC last Saturday, provided stability in a midfield that featured two 23 year olds with limited first-team action in Sean Zawadski and Isaiah Parente. The veteran was able to get involved without overextending himself.

The center back choice, which also included Philip Quinton who started the first five matches of the season alongside Degenek and Moreira, was an indicator of Nancy not wanting to give up anything cheaply. By playing close to his first-choice backline, he ensured that even if the Crew had trouble scoring goals, which the team did, the group wouldn’t be punished with a mistake on the other end. It also allowed this group to continue its development in the way Nancy wants his center backs to play.

While there were certainly some raised eyebrows from fans when the lineup was announced, and many were likely concerned about possible injuries to key players, it was refreshing to see a coach take the Open Cup, even in the early rounds, seriously. After all, it was the first trophy in the Crew’s history.

Not keeping it simple

Sometimes the easiest way to get something done is the best way. The Black & Gold did not follow that philosophy against Indy Eleven. Despite having multiple of the team’s highest-paid players on the field, Columbus made the game more difficult for themselves, having to push until the end of the match to get the game-winning goal.

This started with Nagbe. The midfielder was more aggressive going forward than he typically is for the Crew, likely due to who was playing around and against him, but failed to create much. Nagbe got in good positions at the top of the penalty box but only took two shots. Instead, he passed the ball, typically to right wing back Max Arfsten.

This is similar to a conversation that has been had in NBA circles when it comes to LeBron James. James often makes the right “basketball play” by passing to teammates when he attracts the attention of the defense, but he is often the easier path to points because he’s better than most of his teammates and those defending him. The same was true with Nagbe against Indy Eleven. He was able to get into those dangerous spots but didn’t look to beat a defender and shoot, instead trying to create for others. This overcomplicated the attack as Nagbe going alone in the middle of the field is often going to create more than passing to Arfsten, a rookie MLS SuperDraft pick by the Crew.

Hernandez also could have kept things simple with his play and it may have led to an earlier goal, or goals. In his return from injury, Hernandez was his active self, covering a lot of ground across the Black & Gold’s attacking front. The issue is, Hernandez is Columbus’ best finisher and when he receives the ball out wide, it does little good to put the ball in the net. In fact, it makes it more difficult for the Crew to score because he then has to either dribble into the penalty box or look to find someone else.

To continue the basketball metaphor, this is like a big man who continues to catch the ball on the perimeter instead of in the paint. It’s easier to defend most big men away from the basket where they are the most dangerous. In this scenario, Hernandez is the big man.

Now, this is nothing new and it was something Hernandez has done this year under Nancy. The issue on Wednesday is that the players around him, which the movement is designed to open space for, weren’t at the same level as Lucas Zelarayan or Alexandru Matan. Jacen Russell-Rowe has had a nice start to his career, but having Hernadez in the 18-yard box is much more likely to lead to a quality shot on target than the young Canadian, who only put two of his five efforts on frame.

There are times for tactical adjustments and players to make certain plays, but when facing Indy Eleven in the third round of the Open Cup, the Crew should just keep it simple for success.

The gap between MLS and MLS NEXT Pro

For some fans, this may have been the first time seeing a number of the Black & Gold’s younger players, or seeing them for the first time for an extended period of time. While Nancy did play a stronger lineup than expected by many, Zawadski, Parente and Russell-Rowe all started after spending more time in their brief Columbus careers with Crew 2 than with the first team.

What might have been noticeable is that these players, while making progress, still have a ways to go before they are ready to be regular MLS contributors for the Crew. Also, while MLS may want you to believe that its reserve league is better than the USL Championship, those Indy Eleven players were a step above what is seen in MLS NEXT Pro on a week-to-week basis.

Zawadski, Parente and Russell-Rowe didn’t have poor performances, in fact, it could be argued they all played well, but they also didn’t dominate the way they do at the second-team level. Those were three of the better players in MLS NEXT Pro last season and have seen more first-team involvement because of it, but they didn’t stand out against a USL side, which makes it hard to believe they will against MLS opposition.

Both Zawadski and Russell-Rowe have made appearances for the Black & Gold over the last two seasons and shown there is potential there, but also haven’t put together consistent enough performances to be considered for pushing for more playing time. Parente didn’t play at all for Columbus last season and this was his first appearance for the first team this year as he continues to grow in his third professional season.

While it’s always exciting to see young players that get an opportunity with the first team, it’s important to remember that few are ready to perform at the MLS level right away and these are examples of players that still need more time before they can be trusted routinely, as this game showed.

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