Takeaways: Columbus SC attack looks stale without Zelarayan, gives up point at New England
Mention the number of injuries. Mention the difficulty of playing six games in 19 days. All of those matter in the context of Columbus SC’s ability to score just one goal not from an own goal through five league games.
There’s still a pattern that has developed and has plagued the Crew in the early portions of this season.
On Sunday night at Gillette Stadium, the Crew (1-2-2, 5 pts.) lost 1-0 to the New England Revolution (3-1-2, 11 pts.) with just one shot on goal and another off the post. Forward Adam Buksa scored the game-winner in the 86th minute off an assist from defender Brandon Bye.
Compared to the past two games — specifically the midweek loss to Toronto FC — the build-up in the attack didn’t have the same quality without star playmaker Lucas Zelarayan, who missed the game with a minor injury that likely won’t cause him to miss much time.
Taking out the best player in the lineup undoubtedly has an effect on the rest of the team. But it was the same cadre of individuals on Sunday night who continue to be missing from the stat sheet.
Forward Gyasi Zardes and midfielders Pedro Santos, Luis Diaz and Derrick Etienne Jr. have yet to contribute with an assist or a goal this season — though Santos created the first own goal against D.C. United with a low, hard shot.
Zardes, Santos and Etienne accounted for four of the six shots against the Revolution. Only Santos’ free kick in the 83rd minute was on goal, which was an easy save for goalkeeper Matt Turner.
"A lot of our goals come from crosses, but a lot of teams know that now,” Zardes said. “A lot of teams are trying to take away our opportunity of crossing so we just have to find alternative ways to score or get into positions to even take shots. I think it's going to come.
"I have faith in my teammates. I have faith in myself. I have faith that we're just going to have more opportunities in the games to come.”
There are many reasons for the dearth of scoring, all of which coach Caleb Porter believes can begin to be solved through a full week of training and getting some players healthy ahead of the next match.
"We're kind of chewed up,” Porter said. “We're missing some spokes in the wheel. But I feel like this is a game we can build on.”
In theory, getting rest and players back should help. There’s still the task of finding the rhythm offensively that the Crew rode to MLS Cup last season.
"There has to be a level of intensity that we need to reach,” said defender Josh Williams, “and I don't think we had it tonight.”
Here are some takeaways from the match:
Santos off his game in place of Zelarayan
When Santos has to fill in for Zelarayan at the No. 10 position — central attacking midfielder — the expectation level is often unnecessarily high because of the caliber he’s replacing. Santos’ role shouldn’t be the do-it-all magician Zelarayan can be at times. Rather, Santos just has to be good enough in creating chances for the offense to get a result.
Porter complimented the Portuguese midfielder on his effort, but his quality was missing in several key moments.
In the 26th minute, Darlington Nagbe passed ahead to Santos to start what looked like an opportunity in transition. After a touch or two, Santos tried a pass behind the defense to Zardes that Usain Bolt probably couldn’t catch up to. He made the same play just shy of halftime, too.
There were a few quality plays from Santos, mostly in the 38th minute when he passed the ball into space for Diaz down the right wing. Diaz’s attempted cross to Zardes was spoiled into the stands.
“(Santos) is not going to unlock the game like Lucas, like I said,” Porter said. “But you've got to find a way to kind of grind a point or more on the road, and I think we were in a position to do that. Am I happy with every aspect of the football? I think there's a lot of improve for sure. But we're five games in and, like I said, we haven't had training, we've had injuries.”
Lack of quality at winger hurting Crew
For the Crew offense to be successful, it needs Zardes to start scoring. Porter said as much after Wednesday’s game against Toronto.
But for that to happen, Diaz, Etienne, Santos and Alex Matan need to deliver service to the striker.
The absence of left back Milton Valenzuela has also affected the Crew’s offense because of his ability to get to the end line and allow the left winger to get into the penalty area instead of being forced to stay outside and cross to the forward.
"Pedro on the wing, he's a top winger for us ... so when you lose Lucas, you lose your best winger as well,” Porter said. “Matan had some moments. Luis Diaz had some moments. I'm disappointed he missed that cross that would've been an easy goal to Gyasi where he didn't get his hips turned around when we broke their back four and it's an easy slide in. Those are things we work on and talk about. We got to keep working on that with him.”
Potentially more injuries
Diaz and Etienne had to leave in the second half due to injuries, potentially hurting the Crew’s depth with two more games before the Gold Cup break.
Diaz took a blow to the head and had to come off in the 59th minute for Matan. Etienne exited the game for Liam Fraser with an unknown injury.