Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

What the 2022 MLS season meant for Columbus Crew


It turns out this was just 2021 all over again.

A GIF is worth a thousand words:

The idea, heading into this season, was that last year’s underperformance could be explained away by injuries and a championship hangover (very much a real thing). But with better health and a better roster – one pumped full of new faces in central defense, on the wings, and eventually up top at center forward, and clearly one of the best in the league – surely 2022 would see a return to the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.

After all, that had been the pattern throughout Caleb Porter’s career: Make the playoffs one year, then miss it the next. That’s the way it worked, without fail.

Not this year. This year, the Crew’s propensity for late meltdowns defined their season from Week 2 (remember Francisco Calvo’s brace????) until the curtain rang down after the final whistle on Decision Day.

So there was no return to the playoffs. And less than 24 hours later, Porter paid for it with his job.

Formation and Tactics

The Crew’s game model was mostly the same as it’s always been: 4-2-3-1 with patient possession, fullbacks that get high and wing overloads that are used less for pullbacks across the six and more to open the half-spaces for playmaker Lucas Zelarayan or one of the wingers. There were times when Porter had to tinker with a back five – it wasn’t a completely injury-free year, after all – but for the most part, what we’ve seen since 2019 is what we got this year.

That’s to the good and to the bad. The good is that I don’t think there’s anything actually wrong with Columbus’s blueprint, and when they executed it at pace they looked like one of the most dangerous teams in the league. But the problem, which is one that’s existed for four years, is that they would only play with pace in fits and starts, and too often their games became a slog (they were one of the slowest teams to advance the ball upfield as per TruMedia via StatsPerform).

For a hot minute there it looked like Cucho Hernandez was going to be a one-man solution to the above, but alas… no.


Let’s talk about that hot minute, because my word did Cucho arrive with a bang. He scored four goals in his first three appearances, and then four more in his next five. He was a livewire and relentless in a “Josef-in-2017” kind of way.

And that seemed to be exactly what the Crew needed:

If your star, record-signing No. 9 is always making the most goal-dangerous run possible, and is always doing it at a million miles an hour, and the fans are flipping their collective bean, the other players respond to that. They want to play fast, too – they want to push the tempo, and get into the box at a sprint and feed the beast.

It became contagious. There were times, in mid-summer, when watching the Crew felt like you were watching the genesis of a juggernaut.

The other obvious highlight was the Week 33 win over the Red Bulls, courtesy of Derrick Etienne Jr. He came off the bench with 20 minutes remaining and single-handedly turned the game on its ear, rescuing the Crew's season (however temporarily) with a pair of late goals for the 2-1 win.

It was a reversal of the pattern we’d seen from this team all year long. It seemed to suggest that the demons of the summer were buried, and that with the arrival of autumn the Crew were going to find their mojo and perform at a level commensurate with their talent.

That was not to be.


Columbus had one of the best defenses in the league – their 41 goals allowed was bettered, in the Eastern Conference, only by Philadelphia. By almost any measure they were an excellent defensive team.

And yet somehow, over the final 15 minutes of games in which they were ahead or tied, they conceded 17 goals. Think about that! Think about how narrow a slice of the season that is! It breaks my brain!!!

I first wrote about this phenomenon in mid-September after they’d blown a 2-0 lead in Montréal and had to settle for a 2-2 draw.

“We’re all pissed off, obviously, with the way it ended,” Porter said after that game. “Honestly I thought we were playing as well as we’d played in any game all year. We were on the road playing, in my opinion, the best team in the league, and we’re up 2-0… I thought the energy, the execution, everything we did on our way to scoring two goals.

“And then we lose our discipline, and we go down a man. For me, that’s what turned the game. You know, up 2-0, 75th minute, 11-v-11? No chance. No chance they come back.”

Except there really was a chance, because identifying the problem (note: playing a man down was not the problem) didn’t fix it. It all came to a head in the final two games of Columbus’s season with the playoffs on the line.

You know what happened: a 2-0 lead in Charlotte turned into a 2-2 draw with Andre Shinyashiki’s 94th-minute equalizer, and a 1-0 lead in Orlando turned into a season-ending 2-1 loss when Facu Torres potted an 84th-minute PK.

Fact is, if you drop points in a game where you score this goal…

…then your season is probably cursed.


It took him maybe two years longer than I thought it would, but Etienne Jr. finally blossomed into the productive, goal-scoring winger a lot of folks figured he could become in the right situation. He finished the year with 9g/6a in a shade over 2200 minutes, and with 3g/1a over the final three games it’s Dab God more than anyone else – not even Cucho or Zelarayan – who deserves the most credit for Columbus still being alive on Decision Day.

The Crew have brought in no fewer than five other wingers since Etienne Jr.’s arrival ahead of the 2020 season, everyone from TAM guys to U22 Initiative signings. He’s outplayed them all and deserves some shine for the year he just had.


Even with the addition of a $10 million striker, and even with Etienne Jr. providing so much from the left wing, even with Zelarayan flirting with a Best XI-caliber season, even with Aidan Morris and Artur coming back mostly healthy, and with Pedro Santos transitioning well to left back… it ended how it ended.

2023 Preview

Five Players to Build Around

  • Zelarayan (AM): He’s in his prime. Let’s not overthink this.
  • Cucho (FW): He’s entering his prime. Let’s not overthink this.
  • Etienne Jr. (LW): He’s in his prime. Let’s not overthink this.
  • Morris (DM): He’s a year from entering his prime. Let’s not overthink this.
  • Darlington Nagbe (CM): He’s at the tail end of his prime. Let’s not overthink this.

Offseason Priority

Let’s not overthink this: on paper, this is one of the best rosters in the league. There’s young, promising depth at several key spots (Will Sands at LB, Jacen Russell-Rowe at FW, Sean Zawadzki at CM), and none of the veterans with the possible exception of Santos is bordering on too old.

This is almost certainly the best job likely to come available in MLS this winter. The No. 1 priority is to find the right coach to bring the best out of them in 2023 and beyond.