What We Learned: Crew vs. LA Galaxy

It was a much-needed win for the Columbus Crew on Wednesday night. The 2-0 victory over the LA Galaxy ended a winless run in MLS of four games and brought good feelings back to Lower.com Field after the Crew left its home stadium with disappointment the last three times out.

The Black & Gold were led by first half goals from playmaker Lucas Zelarayan and wing back Malte Amundsen. Goalkeeper Patrick Schulte made two saves and the defense did enough to hold the Galaxy scoreless and get the three points.

Before attention turns to the Hell Is Real Derby against FC Cincinnati on Saturday, let’s take a look back at What We Learned from the win against LA.

Another tactical tweak

As we discussed in this column from earlier in the week, head coach Wilfried Nancy will make adjustments to his system from game to game and sometimes those adjustments are more obvious than others. Saturday’s changes were once again apparent to those who have watched Columbus play all year.

When the starting lineup was first announced, the question was what formation the Crew would be in. Nancy is yet to go away from a 3/5-man backline this year, but there were four defenders in the starting 11 with Amundsen, Philip Quinton, Gustavo Vallecilla and Steven Moreria. Was Nancy moving to a back four or was there something else up his sleeve?

As it turned out, the backline wasn’t much different in initial shape than in other matches this year. As soon as the Black & Gold lined up for the kick off, it was clear that Quinton, Vallecilla and Moreira were the three center backs, Amundsen was at left wing back and Alexandru Matan was in at right wing back.

Why this stood out is because Matan has been deployed almost exclusively as an attacking player during his time in Columbus. Under Caleb Porter, he was often on the wing, while Nancy has predominantly played him as an attacking midfielder. This was a change in role.

This wasn’t completely out of the blue, as Nancy has used winger Yaw Yeboah at left wing back with mixed results. Yeboah, however, is more of a natural winger than Matan, who has thrived playing as a No. 10 under Nancy, and is better when he’s able to play more centrally.

As it turned out, however, this move worked. Nancy wanted a more attacking player on the right in this game and had Matan play more like a winger than a true wing back or fullback. The young Romanian worried less about his defensive responsibilities and more about getting forward and helped to create from out wide. It was not all that dissimilar to how he was used on Saturday, he just started from deeper.

In addition, Nancy played with two forwards from the start — Cucho Hernandez and Christian Ramirez. For most games this year, the Crew has used one forward with two attacking midfielders behind him. On Saturday, Jacen Russell-Rowe was flanked by Matan and Hernandez as an attacking front three.

Nancy is finding different ways to use his personnel, which, as mentioned before in What We Learned, is not set up to play his style completely, in interesting ways. It hasn’t always worked perfectly, and there were still issues against the Galaxy, but Saturday’s tweaks were good enough for three points.

Closing out a game

Coming off of Saturday’s disappointing 2-2 draw against Orlando City SC, the conversation from both Nancy and the players was around closing out a game better. Nancy talked about experience. Wing back Mohamed Farsi said the team was naive and too nice. Matan pointed to specific moments where the Black & Gold could have wasted time.

The message was received.

Against the Galaxy, Columbus found itself in the same position four days removed from allowing the visiting team to come from behind to get a point. Up 2-0 at halftime, the Crew was either going to show growth or experience another letdown.

As it turned out, the Black & Gold showed the ability to kill the game in the second half against LA, perhaps even too well, as Nancy said he thought his team started trying to do so too early and could have been more aggressive looking for the third goal.

While the Galaxy started to take more control of the game in the second half, LA was never all that dangerous with just two shots on target and an Expected Goals of 0.47 (0.35 in the second half). The Columbus players were more patient when they had the ball, making the visitors chase. The time wasting tactics were obvious and exactly what a team up 2-0 should do to help secure the win.

The next step for this team will be finding the right balance with a lead in the second half. It’s okay to continue to play the team’s game when up 2-0 and look for the killer third goal. While the Crew doesn’t have to throw numbers forward, they can still play with similar pace and rhythm from the first half and begin to slow things down as the half wears on.

There’s also nothing wrong with taking 10 minutes to “take the sting out of the game” by keeping possession and slowing things down. This is something that the best teams in the world do really well and can be a good tactic when the opponent starts to find some success going forward.

It was good to see the Black & Gold make quick strides from Saturday to Wednesday and this will continue to be something this young team will need to focus on in games throughout the season.

Goals from everywhere

Columbus has scored 23 goals through 12 games this season, second to only Atlanta United. Even considering 11 of those came in two games, Nancy has built a team that is potent attacking more often than not.

What’s interesting about that number is that Hernandez, the Crew’s second-highest-paid player and the man expected to lead the team in goals, has only scored once this season in six games. This is clearly frustrating the forward, who said before the season that he had a goal target in mind for his 2023 season. (Although he would be helped by going for a simpler finish than trying to chip a goalkeeper on a breakaway like he did on Wednesday.)

Looking further at the numbers, Black & Gold forwards (if you include Max Arfsten, who has played multiple positions this year) have only combined for seven goals this year, less than one-third of the finishes.

This is a good thing as it means other players are scoring. In this match, Zelarayan scored his team-leading fifth goal and Amundsen scored his first, making him the 13th player to register a goal for Columbus this year. The Crew has seven goals from attacking midfielders, five goals from central midfielders, two goals from wing backs and one goal from a center back.

While the Black & Gold would love Hernandez to start finding the back of the net with regularity, it’s a positive that Columbus hasn’t fallen off when it comes to scoring while the DP finds his finishing boots.

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