Postseason Preview: Columbus Crew SC / by Eliot McKinley

@etmckinley

We saved the Crew! In a way I don’t even care about the playoffs, we saved the Crew! For the last year, the team and the fanbase have been in an existential fight to save the Crew from being ripped from Columbus and moved to Austin. This fact hung over everything in the Columbus Crew universe. No matter how hard I tried to just sit back and enjoy a game, there was always a thought in the back of my mind that this may be the last time the Crew plays [insert team here], or this may be the last Pipa chip I get to see. But you know what? We saved the Crew! It took thousands of man-hours from countless volunteers working together to do it, but we saved the Crew!  When the rumors were finally confirmed late in the afternoon on October 12, I was ecstatic. We saved the Crew! This was bigger to me than the massive championship in 2008. It was even bigger to my brother as he got to shave the beard he’d been growing for the almost year after Grant Wahl broke the news of the potential relocation. My only regret is that I couldn’t be there in Columbus for the celebration that day, but I will be there for the first home match after the Crew were saved. It is going to be Massive.

On to the analysis:

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Formation

Every game this season, Gregg Berhalter has set up his team in a possession based 4-2-3-1. Berhalter’s system is built on building out of the back, with Wil Trapp often dropping back between the center backs to distribute the ball. This distribution is often via long diagonals out to the full backs, Milton Valenzuela on the left or Harrison Afful on the right. Alternately, the Crew will possess though the middle via Trapp, Artur, and Higuain and try to find the inverted wingers Pedro Santos on the right or Justin Meram on the left. In all cases the striker, Gyasi Zardes this season, is there to finish, usually with a one touch shot. That’s not to say there have not been variations within that basic shape, however. At times right back Harrison Afful will play more centrally as an almost false fullback, the Crew at least once deployed more in a 4-4-2 shape, and Berhalter can also play a more direct style as needed.

Team Stats

Possession: 52.3%
xPassing For: 283.8 (3rd in MLS)
xPassing Against: -67.6 (5th in MLS)
xGoals For: 47.8 (11th in MLS)
xGoals Against: 33.2 (1st best in MLS)
xGoalDifference: 14.6 (5th in MLS)

Top expected goals for: Gyasi Zardes, 18.7 xG (2nd in MLS)
Top expected goals assisted: Federico Higuain, 8.5 xA (11th in MLS)
Top expected buildup: Artur, 24.23 (13th in MLS)
Best xPasser: Wil Trapp, 76.7 (10th in MLS)

Season in Review

Given the off the field issues, one could argue that the Crew are possibly over performing expectations. The Crew started the year rather strongly, but recently seem to be stumbling their way into the playoffs. They have failed to clinch a playoff spot in 3 straight games and saw their hold on the 4th seed slip away.

The attack is highly reliant of the form of Federico Higuain, and when Pipa is on the team succeeds, but when he is not they struggle. Unfortunately for the Crew, Higuain has been a bit off lately. While he’s maintained a steady xA/96, his xG/96 in the second half of the season is half of what it was in the first. This drop off in offensive potency has affected the whole team. Gyasi Zardes and Justin Meram have only scored once each in 7 games since the beginning of September and Pedro Santos hasn’t scored since March. In their first 17 games the Crew were 4th in the Eastern Conference in xG for per game, at 1.61, but have fallen to 1.36 per game since. While the Crew are solidly in the middle of the league at creating chances, their goal creation is only better than lowly Colorado, scoring only 38 goals, almost 11 less than expected.

During this time of offensive futility, the Crew have been saved by a stingy defense. This is in contrast to past iterations of Berhalter’s Columbus Crew where the offense has been much stronger than the defense (fun fact: Gregg Berhalter was fired from Hammarby in Sweden for, in part, being too defensive). The defense has been catalyzed by Jonathan Mensah’s emergence as the DP quality center back he was brought in to be. Mensah has been a rock in the back holding down the right center back position with solid defending, aerial prowess, and steady passing. Partnering with Mensah has been a rotation of Lalas Abubakar and Josh Williams. Each has played well and are the top two players on the team in Per100. At right back, Harrison Afful has had another solid year, pairing good defending with attacking intent and great technical ability. On the left, young Designated Player Milton Valenzuela has locked down a position that has given the Crew trouble over Berhalter’s tenure. A spectacular one-on-one defender and above average crosser, Valenzuela has looked to be a very polished player, especially for someone who just turned 20 years old. All of this is ahead of the current and future USMNT keeper Zack Steffen. Steffen has played well this season pairing good shot stopping with great command of his box and good defensive organization. Steffen pairs this with above average distribution (4th in the league in Per100 amongst goalkeepers), although he is still prone to the occasional careless pass which has cost the Crew points on at least two occasions this season.

All in all, the Crew are a solid MLS team, who are well coached, but have perhaps suffered from a bit of bad luck this season. The Crew’s 57 expected points are third in MLS this season, but have only earned 48 actual points. These underlying numbers are encouraging and if the Crew can benefit from some mean reversion in the playoffs they could make a run.

Likely Matchups

If the #4 seed: Host lowest host knockout round #5 seed, likely DC United or Philadelphia
If the #5 seed: Play knockout round at #5 seed, likely DC United or Philadelphia
If the #6 seed: Play knockout round at #3 seed, likely NYCFC

Why the Columbus Crew Won’t Make MLS Cup

Aside from being in the same conference as Atlanta and New York, the Crew will not make MLS Cup due to their inability to score. With only Zardes and Higuain scoring more than 3 goals this season, there is most likely just not been enough firepower to propel them to MLS Cup.

Why the Columbus Crew Will Make MLS Cup

It’s the perfect ending for the upcoming Save The Crew feature film. An evil owner has plotted for years and spent millions to uproot Major League Soccer’s charter member, but is thwarted by a plucky band of committed fans on a shoestring budget. Meanwhile, on the field, a team of underdogs make a miracle run to the final by once again defeating the Goliath of Atlanta United in penalty kicks in the conference final. The sale of the team being finalized just before the final, Don Garber presents the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy to new owner Pete Edwards Jr in front of the home fans at the Tiny Demon Fortress MAPFRE Stadium. Also, the Crew play lights out defense and Pedro Santos finally becomes the scoring machine that he was always destined to be.