What We Learned: Crew at FC Cincinnati

The Columbus Crew went to FC Cincinnati and lost 3-2 on Saturday night. That is the fact of the game. However, there was a lot more to unpack from the first Hell Is Real Derby of 2023.

After starting the game positively, the Crew was undone twice at the back, which led to an early 2-0 lead for the home side. The Black & Gold pulled a goal back before halftime and likely felt good about the situation in the locker room. They certainly felt good after drawing level early in the second half but couldn’t hold on, conceding a third goal and failing to find the equalizer.

Columbus and the team’s supporters have every right to be disappointed by the result, especially considering the way the game played out, but they should not be upset by the overall performance. This was a game that could have gone a number of different ways and the Crew did enough to come away from TQL Stadium with at least a point, which is a positive.

With all that in mind, let’s dive into What We Learned from another Hell Is Real Derby.

The center back problem

When Wilfried Nancy was hired, it was assumed that he would bring his three-back system, with two wing backs, to Columbus. That assumption was quickly proven correct in the preseason. Another assumption was that Jonathan Mensah, Milos Degenek and Josh Williams would be, when healthy, the three center backs who played on that backline the most. They are all experienced players who have played in possession-based systems before.

However, Mensah was traded to the San Jose Earthquakes before the season. Williams is yet to step on the field while dealing with an ankle injury suffered in the preseason. Degenek played in nine games before suffering an Achilles injury that will see him out until the summer most likely.

It is fair to ask why the Crew front office thought it was wise to trade Mensah, the club’s captain, away without players to step in and fill that void. There would be a few answers in response. One would be that Mensah, who is one of 19 MLS defenders whose base salary is over $1 million, is 32 and the team was able to get good value back for him at this stage in his career. Another would be that Nancy took nearly all of preseason to watch Mensah play and didn’t believe he fit well enough into the system that it was worth keeping the 32-year-old costly defender. Finally, there was a belief, again, based on preseason, that second-year pro Philip Quinton, who spent last season with the Black & Gold’s reserve team, was ready to take a big leap.

This takes us to Saturday night and the position Columbus is in. Playing in a derby game against in-state rivals who sat at the top of MLS, the Crew’s backline was second-year Quinton, FC Cincinnati and Colorado Rapids castoff Gustavo Vallencilla and Steven Moreira, a right back who is learning how to play center back the way Nancy would like one of his outside center backs to play.

As one might expect, it led to issues, specifically for Quinton. He was not athletic enough to deal with Dominique Badji 1 v. 1 on the first goal. He was caught out enough that he made contact in the 18-yard box to give Cincinnati a penalty kick — questionable as it was — on the second goal. On the third, Quinton played that ball back to goalkeeper Patrick Schulte with other options available which led to the turnover and the game winner.

Like Schulte, Quinton could have done better here in picking out a pass. He is under less pressure than his goalkeeper will be and simply needs to pick his head up to see options to his left. The center back also could have played long and gotten his team out of trouble.

This is not to put the loss to the Orange and Blue on Quinton, who has had very good moments this year and in this game. But it’s simply to underline the situation the Crew is in for the time being. Quinton began the year as a starter but lost his job alongside Degenek once Vallecilla was up to speed after coming in following the start of the season. With Degenek and Williams unavailable, Quinton has to start at the heart of the Black & Gold’s defense.

General manager Tim Bezbatchenko thought the team had a move for a younger center back that fit the system shortly after the Mensah trade, but that fell through due to the earthquake in Turkey at the time. Columbus moved on another target prior to the MLS transfer window closing, but couldn’t get a deal done in time. There is an understanding that another center back is needed but a deal has not been done.

That may change in the summer when the Crew can add players again. But for now, good teams like Cincinnati will be able to take advantage of a lack of options for Nancy.

Credit where credit is due

If you are going to criticize Bezbatchenko and the front office for their lack of action when it comes to adding a center back, you must also give them credit for moving quickly and bringing in Malte Amundsen.

After the season-ending knee injury to Will Sands, it looked like the Black & Gold were going to have piecemeal together the left wing back position, since Jimmy Medranda seems to be unable to take the role. But Bezbatchenko moved rapidly, getting a deal done with New York City FC to bring in Amundsen, a player who had played a similar role before.

Once he got comfortable with his teammates and the style of play under Nancy, Amundsen has stepped in and played very well for Columbus. In his two starts, he has two goals, one more than he had his entire MLS career combined, and has provided a similar type of player to Sands but one with more experience.

Amundsen is able to get up and down the left wing exactly how Nancy asks his wing backs while also understanding his defensive duties. In addition to his offensive actions against Cincinnati — 11 passes into the final third, two attempted crosses — Amundsen also made two interceptions and one recovery. Is he the best defender in MLS? No. But he fits what the Crew wants from the team’s wing backs.

To find a player that fits in that well as quickly as the Black & Gold did is impressive. The team has a depth chart of sorts of targets and that allowed Bezbatchenko and his staff to find one that made sense after Sands’ injury, both in terms of how he plays but also his availability.

Nancy won’t change tactics

During Monday’s media availability, I began to ask the Columbus head coach if he would consider a change from his typical tactics given the players available to him right now. Before I finished the question, Nancy had already responded “No.”

Nancy has a system. He believes in that system and has seen it be successful in MLS just last year with CF Montreal. There has also been success with that system with the Crew already this season, as the team has played some entertaining soccer and, despite some poor results lately, still sits in eighth place in the Eastern Conference.

I am of the belief that a coach shouldn’t be so committed to one way of playing as to not have a Plan B and Plan C, and I don’t just mean tactical tweaks. I remember asking former Black & Gold head coach Gregg Berhalter about this early on and he pushed back that playing their style was part of the process, something similar to what Nancy has said this year. Berhalter eventually relented that in MLS, where the talent gap from team to team isn’t that large, there does need to be a different way to play, to some degree, when on the road sometimes or against a certain style — the New York Red Bulls is the example that comes to mind — and it can’t always be possession and moving the ball from side to side.

It took Berhalter multiple seasons before Columbus fans saw this acceptance.

Maybe that acceptance will come from Nancy at some point in his third season as an MLS head coach. Maybe it won’t. Down the road, the Crew actually may be better for it if Nancy sticks to his guns and continues to force the issue with this group of players. Perhaps they will learn quicker by having to go through it every day rather than the head coach making some concessions for a derby game on the road against the league leaders.

But that is going to take time and it’s going to result in some mistakes, particularly from young players. Nancy admitted after the game that, while he doesn’t like to talk much about youth, Cincinnati had more experience simply based on the players having played more professional games. That experience was ultimately the difference in the game.

The likes of Quinton and Schulte are going to learn from their mistakes and hopefully they become better players because of it. Next year at this time, what they experienced at TQL Stadium on Saturday may be what leads the Crew to a Hell Is Real road win. Until then, however, be ready for the ups and downs of players trying to learn on the fly in what isn’t an easy system to play.

Remember Eloy Room?

There has been plenty of talk around the Crew universe about Room recently. The Black & Gold’s starting goalkeeper since Zack Steffen departed for Europe has been MIA of late with what seems to be a reoccurring knee issue. But many Columbus fans didn’t care too much if Room returned because Schulte had, for the most part, played well in goal.

Saturday night was a reminder that Room still has value. Whether that’s with the Crew or another team, that’s yet to be determined. But Room’s experience doesn’t lead to the mistake Schulte made on Cincinnati’s third goal because he’s been in those situations in hostile environments before and he knows what the cost can be of holding on to the ball too long.

Now, does Room just boot the ball up the field, maybe out of bounds, and live to fight another day? Perhaps. And that’s not exactly how Nancy would like to play. But if it keeps the Black & Gold at 2-2 instead of the gift of a game-winning goal, everyone feels better about the situation.

Nancy certainly will have a decision to make when Room is fully healthy, as Schulte has been good and likely isn’t to make a mistake like that one again. But goalkeeper, more than any other position on the field, benefits from experience, and Schulte only has so much of that, especially when compared to a player who has played in a top league in Europe and has 45 caps for his country.

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