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It was just over a week ago when D.C. United headed to Ohio midweek to face off against the Columbus Crew. Both teams were coming off weekend losses, and the Black-and-Red won a narrow 1-0 game thanks to a free kick goal from Wayne Rooney. In the zany MLS schedule, the two teams will play again this weekend, the first meeting at Audi Field since the Crew knocked United out of last year's playoffs in penalty kicks.
The Crew got off to a good start under new coach Caleb Porter but have since found life tough, losing their last four games. The goals have dried up for the Crew, who have had to rely on Zack Steffen to save them points at times. That's not a huge deal now, but Steffen leaves for Manchester City in the summer, leaving them more vulnerable at the back.
Before the game on Saturday night, let's talk about what is ailing the Crew in front of goal and what might be a major cause for their recent goal-scoring form.
Goals Gone Missing
After Gregg Berhalter left for the USMNT job during the winter, the Crew brought in Caleb Porter, who had been without a job since leaving the Portland Timbers following the 2017 season. Porter made his name in Ohio, making the most out of a stint at the University of Akron. Without much change in personnel, the hope in Columbus was that Porter would be able to pick up right where Berhalter left off with the Crew.
Porter managed that, winning four of the first six games. However, Columbus have now lost four games in a row, including last week's 1-0 loss at home to United. In those four games, the Crew have managed just one goal, giving them a meager total of eight goals in 10 games this season.
And that's been with Gyasi Zardes, Federico Higuain, Justin Meram, and Pedro Santos healthy to start the season. Last year, with Zardes leading the line, Columbus weren't the greatest goal-scoring team, but they still managed more than a goal per game in winning 14 games.
It's not that Columbus aren't converting their chances, either. It's that they aren't really creating them to begin with. Over at American Soccer Analysis, through the first seven games of the season, the Crew had an expected goals return of 7.4 (the site hasn't been updated since mid-April, excluding the Crew's last three games). And from that xG of 7.4, the Crew had scored seven goals, just about where you'd expect them to be. That left Columbus, as of games played on April 16, at 21st in the league in xG per game.
Last year under Berhalter, the Crew were 10th in xG per game, as Zardes set a personal record with 19 goals. The Crew still occupy a playoff spot with almost a third of the season gone, but if the recent trend regarding goals scored continues, Porter might need reinforcements in the summer to make his attack better.
In Washington, D.C., United's attack went stale recently after injuries at outside back. Joseph Mora broke his jaw, Chris McCann hurt his hamstring, and Leonardo Jara injured his shoulder and then his groin. Those players wouldn't be considered the most integral to United's success, but their absences forced United into a formation change, resulting in a weaker attack during the month of April.
The Crew have endured a similar situation, as they are missing both of their starting fullbacks. Milton Valenzuela, who joined the team last year as a young designated player, tore his ACL before the season, likely ruling him out of the entire campaign. And in the same weekend that Mora broke his jaw, Harrison Afful did as well, during a win against Atlanta United.
Those two are two of the top players in their position in the league. The Crew had enough time to adapt to Valenzuela's injury, as they were able to bring in Waylon Francis before the start of the season. Hector Jimenez has filled in for Afful at right back, and Afful is not expected back for a couple of weeks. Both Francis and Jimenez are capable of playing well enough in MLS, but neither matches the quality of the player they replaced.
Porter hasn't deviated away from his preferred 4-2-3-1 system, as Olsen has with his fullbacks out injured. And while fullbacks can be the most overlooked position on the field, both Afful and Valenzuela provided offense support and width to Columbus that is crucial to their attack. Without either available, the attack has suffered, leading to just two goals in five games in April.