What We Learned: Crew vs. Inter Miami

The Columbus Crew lost at Lower.com Field on Saturday night, falling 2-1 to the visiting Inter Miami. It was the first home loss of the 2023 season for the Black & Gold and came against a team near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.

It was the second match in two MLS games that Columbus lost to a team struggling after dropping a 1-0 result against Charlotte FC. But that match was on the road. The Crew also struggled at Lower.com Field last Wednesday night against USL Championship side Indy Eleven in the U.S. Open Cup.

This is all to say it was a bad week for the Black & Gold.

Because I didn’t want to overreact to the loss to Miami, I waited longer than usual to write this column. I wanted time to digest the game, watch it again and see if that changed my perspective on it. It did not.

Let’s dive into What We Learned from Columbus’ loss to Inter.

Wilfried Nancy has to adapt

There is a lot to like about the Crew’s first-year head coach Wilfried Nancy and there’s a reason he was in demand this offseason. He is clearly a bright young mind in the profession and, already through 10 games, it is clear that Nancy is doing a lot right in Columbus.

But Nancy has to be willing to adapt to his team. And not just tactical tweaks between games for the opponent. He has to evaluate what is and isn’t working for the team right now and potentially make significant changes to his setup and how his team plays.

While the Black & Gold haven’t been an exact replica of what led Nancy to 2022 MLS Coach of the Year consideration, it isn’t far off. In fact, if you were to set your television screen to black and white and blur the faces and names of the players on the field, it would be hard to tell the difference between what Nancy asked of his CF Montreal team and this Columbus group.

The issue isn’t in Nancy’s tactics, as they clearly can work in MLS, but that he hasn’t adapted them, or adapted them enough, for the players he has with the Crew.

This is a Black & Gold team that for the last nine years and under two different managers was mostly set up to play a 4-2-3-1 formation. Nancy, who doesn’t like to talk about formations, made a drastic shift going to 3/5 in the back with a team that had multiple wingers and not enough wing backs. This has meant he turned to two players (Will Sands and Mohamed Farsi) with very little MLS experience to play a tricky wing back role and when they haven’t been available, it has been wingers or a converted forward trying to adjust his game.

There is also a lot of nuance to what Nancy asks of his center backs. He wants them on the ball and keeping possession, sucking in the press by the other team before making certain passes to get out of pressure and exploit the space behind. There are world-class defenders that struggle playing this way and Nancy has asked three center backs — one of them in his second professional season — and a converted fullback to adapt to this style in four months.

On the attack, Nancy also doesn’t have the players he did a year ago. Kei Kamara was a perfect second striker to pair with Romell Quioto because they added different things. Neither Christian Ramirez nor Jacen Russell-Rowe has proven to be that complement to Cucho Hernandez.

Nancy has found a way to get results while players adjust to this style, but it’s starting to lead to issues, and losses, now that teams realize where they can exploit these players that are adjusting. This Crew team already has four losses, just under half of what Nancy’s Montreal side lost last year. The Black & Gold are 1-3-1 away from Lower.com Field, while Montreal was the best road team in MLS last season.

It’s important to remember that Nancy’s first Montreal team, one he took over just a month before the start of the season, went 12-12-10 and missed the MLS Cup playoffs by two points. He was able to turn things around the next season, finishing in third place in MLS, but it took time.

Nancy isn’t a bad coach, not by a long shot, but he is asking this Columbus team to do things the players aren’t equipped to do. It’s fitting a square ped in a round hole and forcing it until it fits. Which brings me to my next point…

The Crew isn’t about winning all of a sudden

This is a topic that has been discussed on the Massive Report podcast but one that I haven’t yet written about. Now seems like a good time.

One of the things that kept being said both publically and behind the scenes over the last two years under Caleb Porter was that the Black & Gold were in win-now mode. Coming off the 2020 MLS Cup title, the Crew, from the top down, believed this team was in the midst of a championship window given the players on the roster.

When the Black & Gold didn’t make the playoffs for two successive seasons, Porter was fired three years after bringing Columbus its second league title.

During the offseason, there continued to be talk about win-now, but that has since changed. It appears that with the hiring of Nancy, the Crew wants to be about developing young talent and building toward the future.

This is a major 180.

What makes this decision to pivot so hard is the roster. Two of the Black & Gold’s Designated Players are in the prime of their careers — Darlington Nagbe is 32 and Lucas Zelarayan is 30. Neither of those players is getting any younger. The other Designated Player, Hernandez, could be swooped up by a European club at any time if he gets back to scoring goals. A 24-year-old goal scorer who has the diverse game of Hernandez doesn’t typically last long in MLS.

These are three key pieces to the team that was in win-now mode and now is about developing young players and trusting the process. If that sounds familiar to basketball fans out there, it’s because general manager Tim Bezbatchenko has pointed toward MLS’s Philadelphia team, the Union, as an example of what Columbus wants to be. And while the Union has been one of the league’s best teams in recent years, it took Jim Curtin quite some time to find success in Philadelphia.

There is no issue with the Crew not spending the kind of money it did on Zelarayan or Hernandez and realizing the club has something with its Academy and reserve team. This actually makes sense with the market size. But when there’s the opportunity to push for a title with three of the league’s best players at their position on your roster, it’s a strange decision to settle for being a youthful team that hopes to one day grow into one of the big boys.

Cucho Hernandez needs to be a No. 9

This is a topic that has been brought up before in What We Learned but it’s becoming more and more of an issue. Hernandez has to play more like a striker for this team to be most successful.

Yes, Herandez scored his first goal of the season on Saturday and it was a great strike. It is an example of what makes Hernandez so good, but also what’s made his presence on the field difficult on the Black & Gold attack in his four games played this season.

The goal begins with wing back Yaw Yeboah getting into the penalty box. At that point, Hernandez is in a good striker position at the corner of the six-yard box. Unfortunately, Yeboah can’t feed him the ball.

As the ball is cleared wide and picked up by Zelarayan, Hernandez drops to the very edge of the penalty area to create a passing angle. Zelarayan does give him the ball and the forward, because he’s created space for himself, has a shot that he curls into the back corner of the goal for his first finish of the year.

While Hernandez can score fantastic goals such as this one, there’s no need to make scoring more difficult. And in many situations, either a defender will come with Hernandez or his curling effort won’t be as perfectly placed.

Instead of Hernandez being the one to drop off, why not keep him in front of the goal, and within the width of the six-yard box, and have a player such as Alexandru Matan drop to create space for a passing lane or pull a defender away from Hernadez?

On this play, and too often when Hernandez has been on the field, it’s another player ending up where a No. 9 should be and Hernandez either dropping deep or pulling out wide. This would be fine if the other player could score at the level of Hernadez, but the Colombian is easily the Crew’s best finisher.

In this match, Hernandez touched the ball 61 times in the 90 minutes he played, according to FBref. Forty of those touches came in the attacking third but only seven were in the penalty box, meaning only 11 percent of the time Hernandez touched the ball, he was in a reasonable position to score.

It has become clear that this is not a tactical decision by Nancy, but he has allowed the striker to be less of a striker. Last year with the Crew under Porter, Hernandez’s percentage of touches in the penalty box was only slightly higher, meaning the DP likes to float instead of being asked to do so.

A look at Hernandez’s shot chart from the game looks more like what you would expect from a Zelarayan or Matan, an attacking playmaker who looks to create chances for himself or others around the penalty box rather than the team’s primary goal scorer.

The closer Hernandez receives the ball to goal, the easier it will be for him to put the ball in the back of the net. Yet four of his eight shots were from outside the penalty box with a fifth, the goal, coming from the very edge and a difficult angle. Some of this had to do with Inter defending in a low-block for much of the game, but this isn’t uncommon.

By comparison, below is Miami forward Leonardo Campana’s shot chart from the match, in which he scored two goals and was named the MLS Player of the Week. The two are very different players, and part of what makes Hernandez dangerous is his movement and versatility, but getting him the ball in similar positions to where Campana did in this match would likely lead to better results.

Another example is Josef Martinez, who plays for Inter but did not feature in this match, a player who Hernandez has been compared to in the past. In Martinez’s best goal scoring seasons in MLS, his touches in the penalty box were between 17-19 percent, a more normal ratio for a player of this style.

Hernandez will never be a classic No. 9 who will sit in the center of the 18-yard box and wait for the ball to be delivered to him, and the Black & Gold don’t want him to be. But he has to trust some of his other teammates to help create and get him the ball in good positions while picking his moments to serve in that roaming role as well.

The Crew must start scoring first

So far in 2023, the Black & Gold are 4-1 when scoring the first goal and 0-3-2 when conceding the opening goal. This is likely a fairly accurate reflection of most MLS teams when it comes to who scores first but it has become a particular problem for Columbus when giving up the first goal.

Teams have quickly realized that the Crew struggles to break down a low-block (again, not uncommon in MLS). Some teams may choose to play the Black & Gold this way from the outset and hope for a point, especially on the road. Others will play and push forward, hoping to get a goal before dropping back and sitting deep. Either way, giving up the first goal allows for opponents to feel comfortable dropping into a low block.

This was an issue against the New England Revolution (who went down to 10 men), Charlotte and again on Saturday vs. Inter.

While the pressure to score first is typically on the offensive players, there is also pressure on the defenders to not concede, and Columbus has given up some bad goals in this recent stretch. New England benefitted from an own goal, Charlotte found a wide-open attacker in the penalty box and Inter took advantage of defensive lapses.

The Crew has just three shutouts so far this year and they all came against teams (D.C. United and Real Salt Lake) that were struggling to score goals at the time. Meanwhile, the Black & Gold have only been shut out once, meaning there are goals in this team, even without Hernandez at times.

If the defense (and that doesn’t just include the backline) plays better and doesn’t concede soft goals to put Columbus behind, it becomes more difficult for the opponent to play in the low-block. That means it’s easier for the Crew to score goals and therefore get results in games.

It’s not all negative

While much of this week’s What We Learned has been negative, there are positives about this team as well. Through 10 games, the Black & Gold are 4-4-2, have 14 points and sit in sixth place in the Eastern Conference. Given a new head coach who wants to make changes and the absence of multiple keep players (Hernandez, Sands, goalkeeper Eloy Room), this is a spot most fans would have taken at this point.

What’s disappointing is Columbus dropping points in winnable games, like Charlotte and Miami, and knowing that the schedule is only going to get more difficult.

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