By Kyle McCarthy
COLUMBUS, Ohio – In a nascent season already filled with a host of peculiarities, the currently undefeated Columbus Crew added yet another perplexing piece of evidence to its already confounding situation with its lifeless start to Saturday night's 3-2 win over New England.
A few reasons could explain why the Crew offered such an uninspired opening spell. The anticipated quality of the opposition – a side limited to a youthful group of 16 players and encumbered by a third game in eight days – may have led to a drop in concentration. The actual quality of the opposition – a dogged, energetic and resolute outfit for the entire match, crippling and untimely defensive breakdowns not withstanding – certainly made things more difficult. The surprisingly cool May night and the correspondingly meager crowd probably didn't help matters either.
But the lack of cadence caused by a pair of open dates taken during the first six weeks of the season provided the likeliest cause for the stumble, according to Crew goalkeeper William Hesmer.
“We're still finding our rhythm,” Hesmer said. “We've had a lot of bye weeks. It took us a whole half to start playing in Seattle last week, and this week, it took us about 20-25 minutes to really start playing and putting some passes together.”
More pointedly, it took a gaffe by Hesmer to jolt the Crew out of its stupor. From the moment Hesmer allowed Zak Boggs' first MLS goal to squirt underneath his body at the near post to open the scoring after 29 minutes, Columbus emerged from its doldrums, responded through Eddie Gaven two minutes later and submitted a considerably improved performance to extend its season-opening unbeaten run to five matches (3-0-2).
The display, as in the Crew's previous four matches, proved somewhat less convincing than the final result would suggest. Nearly all of the familiar parts from the back-to-back Supporters Shield winners remain in tact, but those core players have yet to produce at anything close to the level required to replicate those accomplishments in this campaign.
It hasn't mattered as of yet and a stoppage-time goal by Robbie Rogers ensured it wouldn't matter again against New England. All of the squandered chances in the final third and all of the indifferent work in possession faded in importance once Rogers smashed home the game winner, but the final whistle and the victory didn't erase those imperfections or dispel the notion that this Crew team hasn't hit its stride yet.
“There's definitely still room to grow,” Rogers said. “We've played five games. Tonight, we showed we could create chances, but I don't know if it was an overall performance tonight. Maybe we could have been better defensively as a team, more compact, and maybe at times we could have kept the ball better. We're still growing and we're still learning. Winning tonight is definitely promising.”
Scooping up results in each of the first five games falls into that category as well. At this stage of the season, it's all about compiling points in any manner possible, according to Hesmer. The simplicity of the argument doesn't detract from its persuasiveness, particularly in light of the effective, yet not effervescent, presence of New York at the top of the Eastern Conference table.
Columbus certainly possesses the tools to reclaim its now-traditional spot atop the East once it can locate its rhythm, but concerns remain about whether this Crew side will prove as consistent or as potent as the previous two editions.
The onus falls throughout the team to disprove those questions. Continued development and improved delivery from Rogers would certainly help to provide a comparable bookend to the quietly effective Gaven. In light of Guillermo Barros Schelotto's advancing age and Sergio Herrera's apparent inability to persuade Crew coach Robert Warzycha he can provide the goals the club signed him to score, Columbus may have to rely on its wingers even more than it has in the past to generate offense and provide chances for the robust Steven Lenhart up front. The work in possession must also improve, while the back four needs to stay healthy and offer dependable supplemental options to provide rest for Frankie Hejduk and Gino Padula as the fixture list clutters.
Despite those potential pitfalls, the continued injury issues and the less-than-compelling performances to start the season, the Crew sits undefeated five games into the season. Scraping out wins builds character, after all, and Columbus isn't short on that trait anyways.
Figuring out how to reproduce the dangerous and miserly Columbus sides of recent vintage may take some time and perhaps a wise addition or two, but Rogers said he takes heart from his side's ability to pick up points now as it prepares to reach greater heights as the season progresses.
“It's pretty good,” Rogers said. “We're five games in, we haven't lost and I don't think we've played our best soccer yet. I think we're going to be alright.”
Week Seven – Questions, Thoughts and Answers
Star Man – Landon Donovan, Los Angeles midfielder
Two road wins. One goal. Four assists. Any questions?
The Weekend XI
1. “Inexcusable,” Seattle coach Sigi Schmid said after Los Angeles handily dispatched Sounders FC 4-0 at Qwest Field. Schmid promised changes to his lineup – Fredy Montero surely has to sit, doesn't he? – but he doesn't have a lot of influential options on the pine to jolt his side out of its current funk. And considering the shoddy defending on three of the four goals – a fantastic run and impressive header by Omar Gonzalez at the near post for the Galaxy's second, by the way – he'll need to consider changes at both ends of the park to freshen up his starting XI. The refund to season-ticket holders, however, won't help the situation except to provide some empty and token solace to the devoted fanbase.
2. A few words on Edson Buddle's performance on Saturday: Even though he didn't manage to find the scoresheet, Buddle deserves plaudits for his ability to occupy defenders and his sublime pass to set up Donovan's capper. U.S. coach Bob Bradley will decide on Tuesday whether those qualities, in addition to a stretch of torrid goalscoring form, merit an extended look as the Americans prepare for the World Cup. It's hard to see Buddle being left out at this point, however.
3. Speaking of leaving players out, it's probably time for Peter Nowak to drop Chris Seitz from the Philadelphia starting XI for next Saturday's home date with FC Dallas. At this point and after yet another blunder to concede the second goal in a 3-0 defeat at Real Salt Lake, Seitz needs to sit for his own good. Right now, he needs to step away from the constant scrutiny trained upon him and sweep everything out of his mind for a few weeks. Throwing him out there game-after-game isn't doing his confidence or his development any good and it isn't doing the Union any good either.
4. Credit Toronto FC – particularly Chad Barrett, Dwayne De Rosario and O'Brian White – for an inspired second-half performance to dismiss Chicago 4-1 at BMO Field, but what happened to the Fire defense after the halftime interval? The visitors were torn asunder time and again as TFC's pace on the break exposed the primary weakness of the current Fire backline: a dearth of speed. When White exposed the normally excellent Wilman Conde – guilty of a suspect decision to jump into a challenge at midfield instead of dropping off and giving himself some cushion against the speedy TFC forward – on the third goal, he issued a resounding sign that it just wasn't the Fire's day defensively.
5. The same tenet held for New England as three soft goals – including a stoppage-time scuff by the previously oustanding Preston Burpo that ultimately led to Robbie Rogers' winner – undid a gutsy performance in a 3-2 loss at Columbus. With the margin of error so thin considering the tattered squad at present, the Revs simply can't afford the type of errors they have made defensively in recent weeks if they want to arrest this current five-match (0-4-1) winless streak.
6. “He has done fantastic,” New England coach Steve Nicol said after rookie midfielder Zak Boggs scored the first two goals of his MLS career to spark a rare offensive outburst from the Revolution. “His second goal was a finish anyone would be proud of, I don’t care what league you’re playing in. The first one he got a bit lucky, but the second one was a great move, a great goal. And he nearly got his hat trick at the end from a great shot that just drifted right. He had a great performance tonight and if he continues to put in shifts like that, he’ll be fantastic for us.”
7. Two positive signs for FC Dallas as it picked up its second win on the trot with a 1-0 victory over DC United at Pizza Hut Park: (1) Jeff Cunningham finally converted one of the oodles of chances presented to him to convert the game winner and score his first goal from open play. Perhaps the composed, slotted effort from David Ferreira's cultured throughball will prompt Cunningham to finish with more regularity; and (2) Kevin Hartman did what he could to claim the number one shirt for the foreseeable future by bailing out his teammates on several occasions to set the stage for Cunningham's late winner.
8. Surprising fact of the weekend: FCD has not lost in 12 home matches (8-4-0) since suffering a 3-1 defeat to Houston on June 13, 2009. Guess the size of the crowd doesn't correlate to the advantage gained, eh?
9. It's all about the wide players in San Jose right now as Bobby Convey and Joey Gjertsen once again sparked the Earthquakes to victory on Saturday night. While the 4-0 home win over 10-man New York owed much to Luke Sassano's 13th-minute dismissal for a rash challenge on Convey, San Jose earned its victory in spades with constant movement and impressive work from its two wide players. Tidy finishes by Ryan Johnson and Chris Wondolowski (fourth goal in four games) didn't hurt either.
10. The timing of Sassano's dismissal hamstrung Hans Backe tactically as he tried to manage his ten men. At a later point in the game and with San Jose's wingers providing most of the attacking punch, the numbers play probably would have meant immediately hauling off Salou Ibrahim and adding Jeremy Hall to keep four midfielders on the pitch. The difficulty of assuming a defensive approach with 77 minutes to play led Backe to keep Ibrahim on the field and concede plenty of room to roam in the wide areas with three in midfield. New York looked relatively dangerous on the counter with Ibrahim and Juan Pablo Angel until Bouna Coundoul's terrible blunder – he somehow jumped over a Gjertsen shot hit straight at him to concede San Jose's second goal – early in the second half all but decided the match. Shortly after the second goal hit the twine, Backe sent Hall onto the field to help close down the wide areas.
11. Talk about a savvy veteran move by Craig Waibel to pick Jonathan Bornstein in order to free up Adrian Serioux for Houston's second goal in its 2-0 win over Chivas USA. Waibel's pick allowed the now-unmarked Serioux head home Brad Davis' corner and give the Dynamo a two-goal cushion after just seven minutes. Serioux's goal capped a rousing Houston start – Davis ran onto Brian Mullan's lovely curling ball from midfield and chipped the out-of-position Zach Thornton after just four minutes – and ensured Chivas USA never had a chance to recover from its almost inevitable letdown after a midweek trek back from a 4-0 win at New England.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.
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