Robert Warzycha's side is now unbeaten in six matches after a 0-0 draw at New England despite a potentially crippling set of injuries, plus a look at all of the Week 13 action.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The fundamental underpinnings for every shred of success enjoyed during Robert Warzycha era in Columbus can be more or less summed up by the straightforward principles recently espoused by Crew defender Josh Williams.
“We keep fighting for the guy next to us,” Williams said after a 0-0 draw in Columbus extended the battered Crew's unbeaten run to six games. “We're a really close team. There a lot of good guys in here and we have a really good locker room. Every game, it's one of the things we say before we go out: fight for the guy next to you. Everybody from one through 18 is fighting for the guy next to them.”
The numbers actually dip well into the 20s at this point, but the mentality perseveres anyways through a selection crisis that would have sent other sides crashing down the table.
Several injuries to key players compounded the concerns caused by the close season departures of Emmanuel Ekpo (Molde FK), Andrés Mendoza (Atlante) and Robbie Rogers (Leeds United) and prompted a run of one win in the opening seven matches. William Hesmer will miss the entire season after undergoing micro-fracture surgery on his hip in April. Chad Marshall (concussion symptoms) hasn't played since the end of April, while Julius James (shoulder surgery/collapsed lung) hasn't featured in the first team yet after making his season debut in a 2-1 defeat to Dayton in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup last month. Rich Balchan, Dilly Duka, Carlos Mendes and Danny O'Rourke have all battled injuries at one point or another this season.
In their stead came a crop of players ready to pounce on their chance in the first team and uphold the Crew's pragmatic and resolute deportment. Williams moved fairly seamlessly into central defense after biding his time in the reserves. Andy Gruenebaum stood out as one of the league's top goalkeepers before the international break and sustained that form with a trio of critical first-half saves against the Revolution. Other figures – consistent schemer Eddie Gaven, rookie midfielder Kevan George, steady right back Sebastián Miranda, persistent striker Emilio Renteria, fit again Tony Tchani and left back Nemanja Vuković – have played their part as well as the Crew slowly but surely found a way to pick up points week after week.
“It's about guys stepping up,” Warzycha said. “They play the best they can. Actually, we've looked sharp. I'm happy because the fit is good, we looked sharp and we had an answer for everything [against New England]. Sometimes, you go into a stretch during the season that everything you do is going to work for you. Sometimes, whatever you do is not. It seems like we're in that stretch where the guys are jelling and working for each other. Somebody always makes something good and positive. We have to continue to do that for the rest of the season.”
The overall production far outstrips the sum of the parts at the moment. The shutout at Gillette Stadium marked the Crew's sixth straight match without defeat (3-0-3) and seventh straight outing conceding one or fewer goals.
Perhaps the most remarkable stat from that run: four of the six results have come away from Crew Stadium. It isn't easy to collect points in Portland (0-0 draw on May 5), San Jose (1-1 draw on May 19) and Seattle (2-0 victory on May 23), but Columbus has somehow found a way to consistently collect points in adverse situations.
“For us, we've had a lot of games on the road lately and only one at home in the last long stretch we've had,” Gruenebaum said. “We know that we're going to have to build ourselves on the road and build that confidence on the road. We're going in with that mentality that if we keep a zero on their end, then maybe we can steal one.”
Many of those performances adhered to the usual Crew stereotypes – conservative in approach, mediocre in possession, resolute in defensive shape – yet there are signs that the tried and true system may change slightly as the season progresses. In four of the six matches during this unbeaten run, the Crew attempted more passes and enjoyed more possession than their opponents. The recent switch to a 4-4-1-1 setup – a formation that includes Gaven roving underneath Renteria and George in a holding role in front of the back four – has hinted at greater progress with uncharacteristically deft work on the ball (more than 400 passes struck with an average passing accuracy of 79 percent in the past two games, according to statistics compiled by Opta).
(Note: As a caveat, it's fair to note the role played by the opponents in the past two encounters. Chicago usually doesn't mind to sit back and wait for the counter on the road, while New England conceded possession far too often [69.6 percent passing accuracy, according to statistics compiled by Opta] due to its tendency to move narrowly through the already crowded midfield. With those points made, the Crew certainly looked like a team with a touch more ambition and a touch more quality to its work on the ball on Saturday night.)
While those signs – and the pending arrival of Costa Rican striker Jairo Arrieta when the secondary transfer window opens next week – bode well for a more aggressive and slightly more expansive approach, the dearth of goals (seven strikes during this six-game stretch) suggests the most pressing problems aren't yet rectified. Warzycha and technical director Brian Bliss have discussed the prospect of adding a Designated Player during the summer on several occasions as they seek to replicate Mendoza's 2011 production with a figure willing to perhaps offer a bit more work rate.
“We have a very good group, but, obviously, we told the fans that we're going to bring in a DP because that's what they're looking for,” Warzycha said. “We're going to bring in a guy that will score some goals for us and be on the front of the newspaper every weekend. That's why we're looking for a DP all of the time. We have some names, but you know how it is. Sometimes, it's too much money. Sometimes, it's injuries. Sometimes, the guy chooses a different team because somebody pays more. We're still looking. Hopefully, we'll get somebody who is well known and who will score goals for us.”
The potential arrival of another high-priced forward may help the team find the back of the net more regularly, but it won't alter the fabric of this team. Warzycha continues to field a diligent and efficient group capable of capturing results in a variety of circumstances. The players on the field may change from time to time and the overall approach may evolve according to the available personnel, but the committed mindset remains constant as the Crew seeks to prolong its recent run of fine form through the summer months.
Five Points – Week 13 (part three)
1. New bosses, same old results: Philadelphia (John Hackworth) and Toronto FC (Paul Mariner) fell prey to a pair of familiar problems as they fell to defeats this weekend. Hackworth's charges couldn't find a way through and watched all of their hard work end in a 1-0 home defeat to Eastern Conference leader D.C. United. Mariner's players couldn't erase their defensive frailties or stop Júlio César's stunning back post volley in a 2-0 defeat at Sporting Kansas City. More work still to do then, yes?
2. Let the words of one man sum up Seattle's miserable trip to open Stade Saputo: “They were just better than us tonight,” Sounders FC defender Zach Scott told the Seattle Times after Montréal celebrated the first match in its permanent digs with a 4-1 victory. “It's frustrating. It's not indicative of the team we are. It's embarrassing to lose like that, to be down a man and then start to play. It felt like they were playing with a couple more guys than us the entire game. But besides getting a man sent off, we didn't close down space, we didn't do what we were supposed to do.”
3. Ambition (and a brave block) yields three points for Vancouver: More than a few teams would have shut up shop after Darren Mattocks received two needless bookings in short order with a half hour to play in the Whitecaps' 1-0 home victory over Colorado. Instead of tempering their attacking forays or withdrawing Davide Chiumiento for a more conservative midfield player, the Whitecaps pushed onwards and received their just rewards. Sébastien Le Toux should have scored after 70 minutes after a rampaging run by left back Alain Rochat, but he made up for his wastefulness by slotting home Chiumiento's sumptuous diagonal ball 10 minutes later to provide the difference. Martin Bonjour and the goal frame somehow conspired to keep the unfortunate Rapids out after Le Toux's winner and reward Vancouver for its work rate and its willingness to pursue all three points.
4. Poor discipline condemns FC Dallas to yet another defeat to Houston: FCD cobbled together a pretty nice response after Will Bruin's third-minute opener in the Dynamo's 2-1 victory at BBVA Compass Stadium on Saturday night. The injury-riddled visitors created enough chances to merit an equalizer and produced one when the industrious Jackson bundled home in the 59th minute.
And then the red mist descended again to send FCD sliding to a 10th straight match without a victory. Jair Benitez procured FCD's league-leading fifth red card (and his third suspension-worthy offense against the Dynamo in three years) with a petulant elbow to the side of Colin Clark's head just four minutes after the equalizer. Instead of potentially securing a point, FCD eventually succumbed to an Adam Moffat winner and trashed a decent performance in the process.
It's the same old story time and again for Schellas Hyndman's side: the players on the field simply can't keep their heads when it matters most. There are too many red cards (even if one or two collected this season may fall into the soft category), too many players receiving them (league-high four in one side) and too many fouls committed (tied for the league lead with Montréal entering the weekend with 201) to focus on playing the game. The margin for error in Frisco these days isn't wide enough to permit such consistently intemperate behavior without incurring serious consequences yet again.
5. Lineup shuffling ultimately undermines New York's chances in Chicago: Red Bulls boss Hans Backe somehow coaxed his side to a six-match unbeaten run while managing to muddle through a series of potentially devastating absences and injuries. Backe's rather decent run of fortune in this department finally ran out on Sunday after he tweaked his preferred group to compensate for injuries to Thierry Henry and Rafa Márquez. Backe's initial starting XI didn't pan out and the ensuing confidence gained by the Fire eventually prompted the home side's 3-1 victory.
Most of the problems stemmed from the decision to select versatile defender Heath Pearce in a holding midfield role with Márquez unavailable. That decision eventually led to the first goal (Pearce struggled with his positioning in the early stages and ceded plenty of room for Sebastián Grazzini to provide the service for Patrick Nyarko's header) and prompted all sorts of spacing issues between the defensive and midfield lines. On a day when the Red Bulls already faced significant individual matchup concerns at the back due to Dominic Oduro's pace over the top, the instability caused significant issues.
By the time Backe rectified the problems with a series of changes at the interval (Pearce to left back in place of the substituted Roy Miller, Dax McCarty into the holding midfield role and Mehdi Ballouchy into an attacking midfield spot), the inconsistent Fire had amassed plenty of confidence after a positive first-half display. McCarty scored an equalizer as Backe's switches influenced the game as the second half opened, but the home side responded well to shake off the setback and win the match. Fire boss Frank Klopas made his own adjustment by inserting Chris Rolfe for Grazzini to inspire more direct play through midfield. The home side eventually collected the points after goals by Gonzalo Segares (who managed to beat Brandon Barklage for pace on the overlap) and Rolfe decided the affair.
Fortunately for Backe and the Red Bulls, the lingering qualms about the central midfield and forward options could come to an end soon even if Henry (calf) and Márquez (thigh) struggle to return to fitness in short order. The arrival of an oft-rumored third Designated Player could add to the choices in midfield, while the Red Bulls hope to re-acquire Luke Rodgers from Norwegian side Lillestrøm SK if he receives approval for a U.S. P1 work visa in the next couple of weeks.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.
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