Lucas Zelerayan struck first. Six minutes later, Derrick Etienne struck the next blow. Then it was Zelerayan again as the second half wound down, icing the game in the 82nd minute. The home crowd, decked out in black and yellow, celebrated in cathartic fashion. Their team, during the last major game at Historic Crew Stadium, had just rolled past the Seattle Sounders 3-0 to win MLS Cup 2020.

Just over eight months after lifting the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy, the Columbus Crew are preparing for another game against the Sounders, a nationally broadcast rematch on Saturday at Field (5:30 pm ET | FOX, FOX Deportes). This time, though, only one side is on track to add silverware to their trophy cabinet at some point this season – and it’s not Columbus.

After a locker room celebration-filled end to the 2020 campaign, something has changed for Columbus in 2021. Through 19 games, the Crew have collected just 24 points and are eighth in the Eastern Conference, which puts them one spot (and two points) below the playoff line. They’ve lost four straight games by a combined 12-5 scoreline, leaking goals at an uncharacteristic rate. Their 21 goals scored are tied for third-worst in the East.

There’s still plenty of time for Columbus to right the ship, but with more than half of the season already in the rearview mirror, Caleb Porter’s team has some serious introspection to do. What’s different this time around?

An MLS Cup winner quickly falling from glory is surprising, though not unheard of. An MLS Cup winner quickly falling from glory after strengthening their roster over the offseason? Now that’s a bit more surprising. With forward Bradley Wright-Phillips and midfielder Kevin Molino joining Columbus’ attacking core via free agency, the Crew looked poised to knife through opposing defenses in 2021. That, uh, hasn’t happened: Columbus are currently 24th in MLS in non-penalty xG per 90 minutes with 0.836.

Now, it’s important to note that the Crew have endured some major injury problems this year. Center-mid Artur has been out. Left back Milton Valenzuela has been out. Their two new attackers, BWP and Molino, have both missed chunks of the season. The list literally goes on and on. Plus, add the strain of missing Gyasi Zardes and a handful of others for parts of June and July during the Gold Cup, and you’ve got yourself a pretty thin squad.

Even though I’m not going to devote much more time to their injury struggles, I don’t want to understate how difficult it is to be forced into rotating your starting XI on such a consistent basis. It messes with the Crew’s ability to find any sort of rhythm on the field and it makes Porter’s job very, very hard.

That said, it’s still fair to point out that Columbus’ attack has been ineffective this year. Interestingly enough, their attacking numbers weren’t all that strong last year, either. Second Spectrum’s expected goals (xG) model had them 17th in the league last season in xG per 90 with 1.081. Thinking back to 2020, one of the Crew’s biggest issues this season may just be that not enough is different this time around – at least not in a positive way.

Columbus haven't been getting into dangerous attacking spaces often enough to create consistent chances in 2021. They play the fifth-fewest passes into the box and Zone 14 (the area right outside the middle of the box) in MLS with 15.5 per 90. Last season, they played the seventh-most passes into those areas (18.7 per 90). That’s a notable swing.

One reason the Crew aren’t completing as many passes into those spots is that they’re not sending as many off-ball runners forward and into those spots. Looking at their off-ball movement, Columbus aren’t targeting the optimal assist zones (the outer corridors of the penalty box) enough this year. Their 8.5 runs per game into the optimal assist zones sit 24th in the league, which is down from 10.8 per game in 2020.

Another reason that Columbus aren’t accessing the box and Zone 14 as much as most other teams is because 51.8% of their possessions end in a live turnover, which is the fourth-highest percentage in MLS. Last year, only 48.3% of their possessions ended in a live turnover, which was the second-best number in MLS. That three-ish percentage difference doesn’t sound like a lot, but over a season’s worth of possessions, the turnovers start to add up.

Zelerayan, who plays as the attacking focal point in Porter’s 4-2-3-1, is the Crew’s primary turnover culprit. He’s lost the ball while dribbling 78 times this season, which is more than any other player in MLS. Compared to other No. 10s across the league, Zelerayan loses the ball 1.5 times more per 90 minutes than any of his positional counterparts.

It’s hard to win games when you can’t create chances. And it’s hard to create chances when you’re not moving the ball into dangerous areas. And it’s hard to move the ball into dangerous areas when you’re not moving enough off the ball and when you’re losing the ball left and right.

Defensively, things have been much brighter for the Crew in 2021 – this recent stretch notwithstanding. They aren’t a statistically elite defensive team (their 1.065 xG allowed per 90 minutes are 12th-best in MLS), but they’ve done a better job of masking their injury issues and varied lineups while playing without the ball.

As the Crew look to ascend the Eastern Conference standings, continuing to emphasize defensive compactness in their 4-4-2 block will prove vital. But to really start moving up the table, stringing together threatening offensive possessions is non-negotiable. Columbus don't have to suddenly turn into a possession-dominant team (they weren’t last season!), but they must take better care of the ball, move it more quickly and move into better spots off the ball.

With a double-game week ahead, traveling to the New York Red Bulls on Wednesday (8 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+) and then hosting Saturday’s MLS Cup rematch against Seattle, Porter’s Columbus Crew need to get closer to playing like defending champions.

If not, we might be looking at a situation where Atlanta United – or even Chicago Fire FC – leapfrog the title-holders in the standings and their playoff hopes slip away. Back in preseason, surely nobody saw this coming.