Of Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (April 22, 2022) US Footballers – On Tuesday night, the Columbus Crew’s quest to win the 2022 US Open Cup came to a disappointing end. The crew lost 2-1 to Detroit City FC, a club newly admitted to the USL championship after a remarkable journey from an amateur summer league to second division American football. The backdrop, with DCFC’s noisy and smoking fans, provided a dramatic backdrop for the crew’s latest defeat.
In a column Thursday, The Columbus Dispatch’s Michael Arace asked why crew head coach Caleb Porter refused to speak to the media after the game. While the Open Cup does not require coaches to make themselves available to the press after a game, the choice resonated with a club that has significant expectations.
Columbus found success in 2020, and many saw the start of an MLS dynasty. Of course, that always comes with caveats given the league version of parity, but Columbus was firmly in the Eastern Conference contender category. Ambitious investors/operators, a new stadium that opened last season and a revitalized fan base promise big things for an MLS original.
Missing out on the playoffs in 2021 has tarnished some of those good vibes. Ninth place isn’t a rewrite of a championship season, but it certainly poses problems. Injuries certainly deserved some of the blame, but not all gave the team a pass.
The Crew entered their title-defending season with most of the same players bringing home the championship. Signings in the off-season should have made the club even better. Instead, Columbus sat idle while the postseason tournament played out and NYCFC claimed their crown.
While last year’s failure is fresh in the minds of Ohio fans, the start of the 2022 season is causing renewed concern. Columbus sits in 9th place after seven games with a total of eight points. After starting the season with a convincing 4-0 home win over the Whitecaps on February 26, they only picked up four points in their next five games. They are now in the middle of a goalless three-game losing streak.
For many teams, it would be too early to panic. Seven games is not a large sample size. Whether it was the early exit from the Open Cup by a lower division team or a carryover from 2021, the tension is clearly building.
There’s a good case for patience in Columbus, especially given the early analytical results of the Crew season. Despite their patchy record, their expected goal difference is better than any team before them except Philadelphia at No. 1.
In other words, combined, the crew’s efforts on both the attacking and defending sides of the ball should put it closer to 1st place than 9th place. Expected total goals are just a guide and tell more about the history of a club with more games, but it’s reasonable to argue that Columbus are among the league’s unhappiest teams so far.
On the other hand, the ranking tells a different story. The club’s current dry spell can turn explanations into excuses. While analytical data suggests Columbus is playing better than his record, the inability to convert statistical models into points speaks to issues that need to be addressed.
What that looks like is another version of this question. Winning a title is tough, especially in MLS. Without the ability to simply spend more to gain a significant advantage over their grand prize competitors, MLS teams must find an edge in other ways. It makes sense to think that the club that comes out on top must have pulled a trick to win the league. The downside of the parity coin is that the procedure has a sense of randomness.
This perception of randomness, combined with the weirdness of 2020, works against the crew. How much pressure that creates isn’t supported by the numbers either.
Metrics tell the story of an unfortunate team that is underperforming at the moment, something their coach pointed out. Although the initial target output shows that the xG difference is good overall, the crew is biased in the wrong direction. They also relied heavily on Lucas Zelarayan to create chances and score goals. The crew put Zelerayan on the injured list on Thursday.
Columbus will return to the league with a trip to Kansas City to join Sporting on Saturday. With 27 games on the schedule, there’s still time for the crew and for that matter every team in the league to make waves this season.
So the crew isn’t in a unique position in MLS. We’ve seen MLS Cup winners fall before. Championships are important. They just aren’t important enough to restate a disappointing 2021 and a slow start to this season. Winning matters. Winning matters more now.
Jason Davis is the founder of MatchFitUSA.com and host of The United States of Soccer on SiriusXM. Contact him: email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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Logo courtesy of the Columbus Crew