MLS week 24: The peculiarity of the Columbus Crew and more

COLUMBUS, OH - JULY 22: Justin Meram
COLUMBUS, OH - JULY 22: Justin Meram /

Columbus’s insistence on a philosophy that hasn’t worked has put them into trouble. That and more from the MLS weekend.

The MLS regular season treks on into mid-August as the playoff plot thickens. A look around week 24, including a close examination of the Columbus Crew’s on-field philosophies and the quickly-tightening race for the top of the West:

Angel on Fire

The Columbus Crew are 11-2-12 (W-D-L) this season. Eight of those wins were at home, and nine of those losses were on the road. That’s not an especially bad split for a fringe MLS playoff contender, even if the high number of losses (third-most in the league) shows their inability to take results from tougher games. Their record does give them 35 points from 25 matches after a 3-1 home win over Chicago on Saturday, good for fifth in the East. In a tough conference, that’s acceptable.

Columbus should, and do, want more, though, and that’s been the story of their times since their loss in the 2015 MLS Cup Final at home. They’ve played less than the sum of their parts for more than a year and a half now, to the fault of unfixed weaknesses in the roster and, in part, Gregg Berhalter’s troubling insistence that they meticulously play from the back, resulting in costly turnovers and allowing elite pressing teams to tear them apart — Atlanta have beaten them twice this season.

In an effort to make his team less predictable and keep more numbers at the back, Berhalter switched to something of a 3-4-3 formation earlier this season. It has had its successes and difficulties, but they have not drastically improved either way, keeping their Revs-esque inconsistent form and reluctance to allow tie games. Their last six games go W-W-L-D-L-W.

Talent is there, though, and it’s still not all that different from their magical 2015 run. Justin Meram, in fact, has vastly improved in the past two years, and now is one of the league’s top wingers. Federico Higuain has had his stretches. Wil Trapp is still bossing the midfield next to a ground-covering No. 8, although Tony Tchani has passed the torch to Artur. Harrison Afful and Waylon Francis, who formed the league’s most exciting full-back tandem once upon a time, even started at wing-back against the Fire.

On their day, they’re entertaining, fast-paced and high-scoring. Their day came in the 76th-minute on Saturday against Chicago as they broke apart a stagnated 1-1 tie and sprinted out to a 3-1 victory. DP winger Pedro Santos, signed at the transfer deadline earlier in the week, was not yet in the lineup, so Berhalter’s XI was nothing special.

Meram and Kekuta Manneh buzz around high up the field, Artur actively distributes and covers space in front of Trapp, and the wing-backs bomb forward at every opportunity. When the machine is running correctly, Manneh is allowed dart around the backs of defenders in the channels while both wing-backs take the space on the wing, allowing Meram to facilitate final third combination play based around these elements.

That, on paper, is a pretty productive machine. But rarely is it working the way it should, for reasons of distribution, opposition and, arguably most costly, inconsistency. The Crew are inconsistent at actually trying to implement into matches what they are best at. Rather, they put all their chips into the “pass around at the back” philosophy and as a result spend more time taking short goal-kicks than they do making runs in the channels.

The focus on playing from the back is admirable. Making an effort to play good soccer is very welcome in any league, and should be encouraged. But being pragmatic and playing their best soccer has to be a consideration as well, and their best soccer is played when they possess the ball higher up the field and open up the game to try and run into space, not when they’re trying to get Josh Williams to set the game’s tempo.

Just watch the last 15 minutes of their game against the Fire for proof of how devastating they can be when distribution is less regimented.

The thing is, playing possession soccer and trying to play their best soccer are not at all mutually exclusive, and that’s the frustrating part. In a lot of ways, it’s a lot less fun to watch Lalas Abubakar give up throw-ins to the opposition in the defensive third than it is to watch arguably the fastest player in the league make aggressive runs while MLS’s best inverted creator dribbles through gaps. Sure, it takes away the possibility of some grand tiki-taka goal build-up, but it’s about time Berhalter realizes he’s not Chicago or NYCFC (much less Barcelona) in terms of creating goals from slow-developing defensive third passing sequences.

And it’s not that it is impossible to both play meticulously from the back and free your attackers to play their best game. The Fire do it every week. It’s just that Columbus are either incapable or unwilling to do that. Mediocrity, then, continues to follow them around.

Western Conference contender round-up

If FC Dallas and the Portland Timbers had been able to pick up three points from their matches against Colorado and Toronto, we would have a five-way tie atop the Western Conference. After Houston and Sporting KC won their games, there is a three-way tie with Seattle, leaving FCD in fourth and the Timbers fifth.

It’s very crowded at the top of the league’s suddenly inferior conference. Let’s take a quick look at the three current leaders:

Houston Dynamo: The Dynamo sit in first on the goals for tiebreaker after they whipped San Jose at home on Saturday. The one thing to know about Houston this season is that they will rip you apart when they get to play at BBVA Compass Stadium. More than any other MLS team, the difference between their home and away games is drastic, and that is saying something in this league.

Of their 42 goals, 33 of them came from their 12 home games. They have nine goals from their 12 away matches, three of them coming in D.C. and two in Portland.

Seattle Sounders: Don’t look now, but the Sounders are red hot and are just now awaiting the arrival of a TAM-level winger. They have five wins from six matches after beating short-handed Sporting at home on Saturday, and with the stars back and the championship hangover wearing off, they are back to their “win every game in August and September” mode.

It’s come with improvements in their attack, and how they set up in the final third. Cristian Roldan has stepped forward much more often, and it’s opened new holes:

They didn’t even need to fire their coach.

Sporting KC: SKC are in the middle of a very, very tough stretch of games. On Wednesday, they played an important US Open Cup semifinal against San Jose, which saw their first team lineup go 120 minutes and eventually win on penalties. Saturday was an afternoon match on the hard turf of Seattle, in which a second team XI fell 1-0 to lose their spot atop the conference.

Next week, they’re home to FC Dallas, and the week after they have to travel to Houston. To make matters worse, the week after that is away to Eastern Conference juggernaut NYCFC.

Sporting are a well-built team with three top-tier MLS center-backs and multiple pesky and versatile attackers. Depth has never been their strength, though. Getting results from these next two massive Western Conference matchups will be crucial.

Weekly awards

A look around the rest of the week via our weekly awards:

The best team in the league: Toronto FC. They’re on top of the Shield standings and they continue to be the best in the league. Chicago’s loss in Columbus puts TFC even higher, as they now are four points ahead of the pack.

Toronto waited until the hour mark to start their demolition of the Timbers this week, but once they did, the onslaught was fully on, and it was back to winning ways for a team that had sandwiched a 4-0 smackdown of NYC between two inexplicable 1-1 draws against bad teams. Justin Morrow remains the best goal-scoring full-back in the league, Marky Delgado remains underappreciated and Sebastian Giovinco hasn’t come close to the 2015 version of himself yet.

The most amazing thing about this team is that some random guy is starting at the extremely tough and important position of right wing-back and it hasn’t affected them at all. Nicholas Hasler, a recently-signed Liechtenstein international, has stepped in for Steven Beitashour and excelled. Not only do they have one of the best collection of DPs in MLS history as well as the best academy depth of all time, but they continuously find diamonds in the rough anywhere in the world whenever necessary. The Red Bulls and the Crew try that every week and strike out almost every time.

The worst team in the league: D.C. United (for now). After a literal flood at RFK Stadium on Saturday, the D.C. United-Real Salt Lake match was postponed until Sunday night. With Paul Arriola making his first start, RSL beat D.C. 1-0. Russell Canouse, Zoltan Stieber and Bruno Miranda will be very welcome additions to the starting lineup.

Random result of the week: Montreal beat Philly 3-0. This about sums up the Impact and Union’s relationship this season:

Montreal climbed back from a 3-0 deficit in Philly earlier this season to draw 3-3, the rock bottom of the Union’s disastrous start. On July 19, they hosted the Union and beat them 2-1. They went back to Chester on Saturday and beat them 3-0. Any three-goal road win in MLS (especially a game between low-tier playoff contenders) is rare.

Samuel Piette made his debut for the Impact and looked good. The 22-year-old d-mid adds much-needed young legs to a midfield that has been extremely old for too long.

Predictable result of the week: Houston flyby San Jose at home. As mentioned above, the Dynamo obliterate teams at home, and it was no different this week. 3-0 was the final despite a saved Cubo Torres penalty, with goals going to Vicente Sanchez, Mauro Manotas and Alberth Elis.

You could say the gang’s back together down in Houston.

Biggest result of the week: NYCFC beat LA 2-0 in Carson. In an 11 p.m. ET game, NYCFC went to southern California and laid what has to be the death blow to the Galaxy’s playoff hopes. Sigi Schmid has coached three games and has two losses and a draw.

LA have 23 points from 23 games, nine points off the red line. Vancouver, in seventh with 31 points, has a game in hand on them. Put simply, the Galaxy have no chance.

Goalkeeper howler of the week: Luis Robles vs. Orlando. No full howlers this week, but Luis Robles will regret this one:

The Red Bulls still came out with a 3-1 home victory over OCSC, who gave new DP Yoshimar Yotun his first start. Yotun was quiet in his 90 minutes, starting mostly on the left side of Jason Kreis’s diamond. The issue for Orlando remains central defense, where Jonathan Spector was out in Harrison. Tommy Redding and Leo Pereira were the pair on Saturday and Pereira’s own goal summed up their outing nicely.

Andrew Tarbell’s adventures coming off his line in garbage time against Houston should also get a mention:

Tarbell had a great game, saving a Cubo penalty. That wasn’t as great.

San Jose have a lot of promise, and their willingness to play Tommy Thompson, Jackson Yueill and Nick Lima is very refreshing to see. But they aren’t a team that can go out and score goals every week, and their backline continues to be shaky. They’re in playoff position right now, though, and Swiss center-back Francis Affolter, signed near the deadline, will help the backline.