What We Learned: Crew vs. Orlando City SC

The Columbus Crew sat in a comfortable position against Orlando City SC at halftime of Saturday’s match at Lower.com Field. After a dominant first half performance, the Crew was up 2-0 and appeared to be cruising to an easy three points.

But there is a reason that 2-0 is often referred to as the worst halftime lead in soccer. The winning team believes it’s in a great position in the locker room, while the losing side is motivated to get better, knowing one goal can change the game.

That’s exactly what happened as Orlando came out aggressive in the second half and scored a quick goal. The home side came close but could never get the third and the Lions punished the Black & Gold late, as the two teams split the points in a 2-2 draw.

Columbus was rightfully frustrated after letting a win slip through the team’s fingers, but all that frustration can only be directed one way, and that’s back at the Crew.

Let’s take a look at What We Learned in a fourth straight winless match for the Black & Gold.

The change in tactics

Each match, head coach Wilfried Nancy and his staff tweak the way the team plays based on the players available and what they see on film to best give Columbus a chance to win. Sometimes, these tweaks are apparent and sometimes it takes a close-eye examination to notice the differences.

The main tactical tweak on Saturday was clear to anyone who has watched the Crew this year. When the starting lineup came out, it appeared Nancy set his team up with two strikers and an attacking midfielder, but from the opening kick off, it was clear that this was a front three with Jacen Russell-Rowe as the central striker and Cucho Hernandez and Alexandru Matan playing wider.

This was done in order to get more width, with Matan and Hernandez playing outside in, but the wing backs — Mohamed Farsi and Yaw Yeboah — also playing from wide areas. As noted by Massive Report’s Caleb Denorme, this was done to overload the wide areas and worked well in the first half.

Specifically, this played Hernandez and Matan in interesting spots. Matan has played his best soccer with the Black & Gold under Nancy because he is more central where he is the most comfortable. But he still has the ability to push wider without being a winger, which is what he did to register an assist. Matan isn’t a winger but doesn’t have to be completely central to make an impact and Nancy used that smartly in this game.

Hernadez is a player who wants to be mobile, sometimes to the detriment of his goal scoring, and that was what he was able to do against Orlando. While most of his attacking actions came from him cutting in from the left wing, Hernandez was able to get on the ball and move into dangerous positions. He also pulled back into the midfield at times, becoming essentially Columbus’ No. 10 with Lucas Zelarayan out and pulling the strings of the attack. This is what happened on the second Crew goal when Hernandez dropped and found an overlapping Farsi for his cross assist.

Cucho Hernandez moves from the left wing to drop into a pocket and be the facilitator with a through ball to Mohamed Farsi to help set up a 2-0 lead for the Crew

When Zelarayan isn’t available, this is an interesting role for Hernandez. While he is the most dangerous Black & Gold scorer, and should be used as a true No. 9 more often than not, Hernandez has other skillsets that allow him to do multiple things for Nancy and the attack. If other players are going to be clinical in front of goal, which has happened more often than not this season, then Hernandez doesn’t need to score 15-plus goals and can use his other abilities to make Columbus more dangerous.

With that said, Hernandez can play this way and still score goals. The Colombian has not yet found his scoring boots since returning from injury, with just one goal on the season. However, Hernandez came close multiple times, firing just wide on more than one occasion in the first half and being fractionally offside on the chance he did score, which was called back by VAR, in the second.

When Hernandez starts hitting the target, the Crew will be even more dangerous.

With Zelarayan available, it’s unlikely fans see much of this front three often. But it was an interesting change-up used by Nancy and worked on the attacking side of things against OCSC.

The attacking and active Darlington Nagbe emerged

As has been mentioned in What We Learned and on the Massive Report podcast many times, Nagbe has a tendency not to play up to his full potential on a game-by-game basis. When he’s on, Nagbe is the best central midfielder in MLS. When he is passive and wants to sit back and play simple passes laterally rather than progressing the ball, Nagbe provides less for his team.

On Saturday night, the Black & Gold got the aggressive and active Nagbe and the results were positive.

Looking at Nagbe’s opening goal, it’s a wonder why the midfielder doesn’t get forward more often. He begins the play as the third-furthest forward player for the home side, behind only Russell-Rowe and Hernandez. He then turns and jogs further forward as the ball makes its way to the far side of the field and completely loses his marker. It is this run that leads to Nagbe being inside the six-yard box and having a tap-in finish.

Darlington Nagbe (No. 6) is one of the most attacking players on this play and his run leaves him wide open at the back post.

It wasn’t just on this goal either where Nagbe was further forward than he typically is. There was a clear effort by the player, perhaps initiated by Nancy, to be in and around the penalty box rather than sitting deeper. He made multiple important runs to open space and helped create another chance.

Nagbe only recorded 52 touches in the game, which was well off fellow central midfielder Aidan Morris’ 88, but that’s because he was more active. Nagbe didn’t just sit around the center circle and receive passes. He was on the front foot and got into more dangerous spots on the field.

There are tactical reasons for Nagbe not always pushing forward and he, like Hernandez, has the talent to play multiple roles on the field. But during his time in Columbus, Nagbe’s best games — whether he scores or not — are when he decides to be aggressive and play attacking soccer.

The center back problem

From the beginning of the season, it was clear the Crew didn’t have the depth the team would likely need at center back, especially given Nancy’s desire to play with three across the backline. After trading captain Jonathan Mensah to the San Jose Earthquakes in the preseason, the Black & Gold had just two center backs — Milos Degenek and Josh Williams — with any real MLS experience.

This lack of depth came to a head on Saturday night. Degenek and Williams were both out — Degenek with an Achilles issue that will see him miss multiple weeks and Williams with an ankle issue that has kept him off the field all season — and second-year pro Philip Quinton was questionable after suffering an injury in the Wednesday U.S. Open Cup match.

As it turned out, Quinton was available and started in the center of the back three. Steven Moreira, a fullback that has converted to a mobile center back this year, started on the right and Gustavo Vallecilla, who was brought in for a season-long loan early in the year, was on the left.

Both Quinton and Vallecilla struggled in the match, arguably both players’ worst game for Columbus.

On Orlando’s opening goal, Vallecilla fell down while trying to trap a ball near midfield, leaving his space vacated. Quinton never made up his mind on whether to step to the man with the ball or go with the runner and was caught in between allowing an easy pass from Facundo Torres to Ercan Kara for the finish.

Philip Quinton got caught in two minds and never committed to defending one player way on Orlando’s first goal.

(On a different note, these are the type of plays where the Crew misses Eloy Room. Say what you will about Room’s distribution and not always diving at shots, but making these big saves that help clean up a mistake from the defenders in front of him are what he is known for and why he should step right back into the goal when he’s healthy again.)

Both Quinton and Vallecilla have had good moments this season, but ideally, neither would be a regular starter in MLS. Quinton is an exciting prospect for the future but has already lost his starting job this year with the mistakes of a young player that can cost a team at the back. Vallecilla took the spot from Quinton as the more natural left-sided center back, but there’s a reason he was available on loan from the Colorado Rapids.

The Crew is certainly aware of the depth issue at center back. The Black & Gold made efforts to bring in a more experienced player prior to the season and then again before the transfer window closed for MLS teams. For various reasons, both of those moves did not go through and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko will try again this summer.

Until then, Columbus must make do with what’s on the roster. Williams is getting closer to returning and will be an experienced player who can step in once he is back. Other than that, there will be mistakes made by players such as Quinton and Vallecilla.

MLS needs to learn how to VAR

MLS was one of the first soccer leagues in the world to use Video Assistant Review. MLS remains one of the worst at using it.

Based on the replays available, it’s likely that Hernandez was just fractionally offside in what would have been the third Crew goal of the game in the 64th minute. The issue is that there is no clear angle that shows whether Hernandez was offside.

This doesn’t mean VAR shouldn’t be used in this situation and that the goal shouldn’t be called back. It means MLS should use the tools available to get the call right. While the English Premier League gets mocked for drawing lines and calling players on or offside by centimeters, there is no doubt the call is correct after these reviews.

In MLS, the VAR tells the center referee to go look at a monitor, typically without a camera angle that is in line with the last defender, and make a judgment call. While an offside decision should be black or white — and not need the referee to review the play because there is the technology to draw the lines and get the call right — if this is how the league is going to handle it, then it needs to go back to the intent of VAR and only be used for clear and obvious errors, not ones that require long reviews and uncertainty.

Again, the right call was probably made on Hernandez. But the fact that we can’t say for certain is problematic and means the goal should have stood.

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