The Columbus Crew’s recent match against Orlando City SC showcased a recurring problem that plagued the team last season and has started to do so again this year: an inability to close out games. Despite holding a 2-0 first half lead, the Crew allowed Orlando City to mount a second half comeback, ultimately resulting in a disappointing 2-2 draw.
The first half of Saturday’s game was controlled by the Black & Gold. Columbus created multiple chances but lacked the clinical ability in front of goal — particularly from Designated Player Cucho Hernandez, who just recently returned from injury — to put the visitors in an early hole.
The Crew’s attacking prowess paid off in the 39th minute when midfielder Alexandru Matan received a pass from Hernandez wide, dribbled into the penalty box around two defenders and squared a ball back to the center of the penalty area. Central midfielder Darlington Nagbe followed the play toward the back post, connecting on the free ball to give Columbus a 1-0 lead. The Black & Gold doubled their advantage in first half stoppage time, courtesy of forward Jacen Russell-Rowe’s finish from a similar distance.
At halftime, everything seemed to be going according to plan for Columbus.
However, the second half took an unexpected turn as the Crew struggled to maintain its earlier intensity. Orlando City, sensing an opportunity, began to press higher up the field and impose the team’s attacking threat. In the 49th minute, OCSC forward Ercan Kara capitalized on a defensive lapse, halving the deficit with a well-taken goal past goalkeeper Patrick Schulte.
The play was a result of two mistakes by center backs, as Gustavo Vallecilla fell down near midfield, gifting a free ball to the Lions, and Philip Quinton was caught deciding between stepping to the ball or following his runner, instead doing neither.
The momentum continued to swing in Orlando’s favor, and with the clock ticking, the visitors grew in confidence. In second half stoppage time, OCSC’s persistence paid off as Duncan McGuire’s powerful shot from a free kick deflected off of Quinton after a set piece and found the back of the net, completing the comeback.
“I think we had a lot of chances to score to make it 3-0, to kill the game,” said Matan on Monday. “We started really bad the second half. We made some mistakes, we conceded early. Of course, after that, they had a couple of chances but we had our chances to kill the game and didn’t do it.”
The Black & Gold did have the chances to score a third goal, even after Orlando halved the deficit. The most notable of those came in the 64th minute when Russell-Rowe found Hernandez in behind the Orlando defense and the striker fired home a shot.
There were celebrations throughout Lower.com Field and the scoreboard read 3-1. But VAR sent the referee to the monitor and the finish was waved off for an offside call.
Had the goal stood, or had Hernandez capitalized on his multiple chances in the first half, this is a different story.
Hernandez will score those goals and that will help Columbus in the future. The major issue, however, is an inability to see out a game when the team has a lead.
“We’ve been doing good things at certain moments, but we didn’t win because we need to be better to control this kind of result, to control the outcome,” head coach Wilfried Nancy said. “But to control the outcome, we need to be better in the moment.”
A 2-1 lead at home in the second half should have been enough for the Crew to secure three points. But the home side allowed Orlando to dictate the pace of the game, playing much quicker than a team with a lead should play.
Instead of controlling the ball when in possession, the Black & Gold pushed forward, wanting the third goal rather than being happy to sit on the lead. When the ball went out of bounds, or there was an opportunity for the clock to run with the game stopped, Columbus was too quick to resume play. A corner kick late in the second half was played into the penalty box instead of short where the Crew could have held the ball and burned time.
These tactics aren’t uncommon — Orlando goalkeeper Pedro Gallese wasted time on every goal kick in the first half until his team was losing — but they aren’t something every player thinks about in the moment. With a young team, which the Crew is, there will be learning curves and Saturday night was certainly one of those.
“I think we’re nice guys. We need to waste time and go to a corner. We have to do it. It’s part of the game,” said wing back Mohamed Farsi. “I think because we’re young, we’re a bit naive and try to play play play, but when you have to kill the game, you have to kill the game.”
The 2023 Black & Gold isn’t the same as last year’s side. Only once this season has Columbus given up a lead late, something that cost the team a spot in the MLS Cup playoffs last year and Caleb Porter his job.
But the Crew must learn from these mistakes now while it’s still early; the Black & Gold must either be more ruthless in front of goal when the chances are there or able to play the dirtier side of the game with a narrow lead in the second half — a combination would be ideal. If not, it could be another long and disappointing season for Columbus.
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