Contradictory Columbus rue stretch-run defensive woes

The pride of the Columbus Crew turned out to be the biggest reason they will not be playing in the postseason.

A stout defense that was one of the best in the league faltered down the stretch, even as the offense tried to make up the difference.

“The last game we score two goals, that has to be enough,” defender Sebastián Miranda said of the 3-2 loss Saturday at D.C. United that eliminated the Crew from playoff contention. “It’s very hard when you score two goals away and you lose.”

But he shouldn’t be surprised. 

There were only sporadic segments of the season when the Crew put it all together at both ends of the field. They allowed 22 goals in the first 21 games (a 1.04 goals-against average), but had only an 8-8-5 record because they scored just 21 times.

In the 12 games since the debut of forward Federico Higuaín, the Crew have 21 goals, but also conceded 21 (1.75 GAA) for a 6-4-2 mark.

“There’s a fine line between upgrading at the offensive end and scoring goals, but what are you giving up on the other end?” Columbus technical director Brian Bliss said.

Part of the problem has been the lack of consistency in the backline due to injuries. Captain Chad Marshall was the latest casualty when he withdrew from the lineup prior to the D.C. match with an ankle injury.

READ: Late goal sends D.C. to playoffs, eliminates Crew

With his center back partner Julius James (hamstring) also out, the combined number of games missed by potential central defenders this season (including suspensions) is a staggering 91.

Rich Balchan, who can also play in the midfield but almost certainly would have been spent time in defense because of all the aforementioned injuries, heads the list because he has not appeared in a first-team match this season due to two groin surgeries.

The good news is, he played his first reserve game last Sunday and could be available for the season finale Sunday vs. Toronto FC. 

It’s a sliver of hope for a back line that might be even worse off if not for the play of goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum, who was named the team’s MVP on Tuesday. He had seven of his eight shutouts in the first 18 games despite facing at least five shots on goal 11 times.

Miranda said it’s not the quantity, but the quality of the chances allowed recently that has cost Columbus.

“We played good but in every game we made a mistake,” he said. “It’s always a little detail and they score a goal. That’s why we’re out [of the playoffs].”