That sound you just heard was a gigantic collective exhale coming out of Columbus.
It was everything we've come to expect over the last year, right down to the nail-biting ending despite a strong attacking showing.
Here are some reflections on Crew SC's first venture into the win column.
The Nordecke was loud, the (real) grass was beautiful and things just felt right again with the Black & Gold back at home. Most importantly, the team seemed to play with a freedom and joy that was only present in fits and spurts (and not many) this season.
The balance was there, too. Federico Higuain was spraying tantalizing passes all over the field, Justin Meram was creating danger on the ball, Ethan Finlay was blazing this way and that and Kei Kamara (even if his near-misses still piled up) was in dangerous spots.
For the first time in seven weeks, watching Crew soccer was fun again.
3 for 3
This team isn't going to win a ton of 1-0 games. Three goals, however, is not only a reachable goal, but also one that makes Crew SC virtually unbeatable. Even two goals generally does it, for that matter. (These are not profound observations...It should be true of any decent team).
The number 3 hasn't felt this good in a while, though. For a team that was building but couldn't find ways to produce, the relief was pretty palpable. And three points — well, fans can finally shift their questions from "when?" to "how many more?"
(An added note: the Black & Gold were 3-for-3 on shots on target)
Columbus NEEDS its wings to be clicking to be able to play in Gregg Berhalter's system, and on Saturday everyone played their roles perfectly. Higuain was the string-puller and took advantage of the central space that opened up when NYCFC went with a 4-3-3 with no defensive midfielder (a 36-year-old Andrea Pirlo had a decent game, but he's 36, and we already knew that there was an opportunity to exploit that setup), but Meram and Finlay made things go.
The two were in action on the second goal, when Meram makes like a stripper and dances around the pole that is Pirlo before playing the ball to a wide-open Kamara. It seems obvious to play the ball to a wide-open player, but there was still a lot to develop, and it would have been easy to defer to puppet-master Higuain on the left or play the ball to the run of Finlay. But Meram makes the right decision. And it's Finlay's run that ensures that no defender peels off to mark Kamara wide. (We also return to the 3-man midfield with Pirlo deep — Pirlo whiffs on the initial tackle, and it throws everything into disarray, with McNamara force to over pursue, and with acres of space behind him.)
The goal's thrilling for another reason too — it's on the counter attack. Columbus doesn't take advantage of the counter enough, but the reason that Kamara is so unmarked is because New York left back Ronald Matarrita had just taken his own attacking opportunity on the other side of the field (that's him jogging at the very open of the clip above).
And the final, ultimately game-winning, goal was the most Finlay of Finlay assists, and that's good news for Crew SC.
This is vintage Finlay — using his speed, driving deep and playing the ball back toward the penalty spot. That is when he's at his best. Meram does a nice job of simply roaming into the space provided by Kamara's run.
Finlay has shown more and more bright moments the past couple of weeks, but this was the first time this season when he's put together a complete performance and forced the defense to fear him for 90 minutes. That's what the Black & Gold need for their attack to be effective.
And Meram has continued to show why he's so valuable. I think someone on the Massive Report podcast said that the team can't afford to start a guy who can't go 90 minutes, but if Crew SC wants to be on the front foot, I don't think there's any other option. His impact has been palpable every time out, and I think that's become more consistent as the weeks have gone on. And he showed he can go 90 minutes, and do it at a pretty high level the whole time.
Now, to see all of it happen against a better defense...
Still could have had more
No one should complain about three goals, but there could have been more. Crew SC put just three of its 15 shots on goal. Nine were off target. Two or three of those probably should have been goals, let alone on frame. Normally that might be a ship passing in the night, but with as much as it's been an issue this season thus far, there was still a certain level of frustration.
Three goals on 15 shots is about the average finishing rate. Three for three (the finishing on on-target shots) may not be a number that holds. So it's worth continuing to watch this facet of Columbus' attack — there still needs to be more pressure on the opposing goalkeeper.
But beggars can't be choosers, and Crew nation has been begging for what they got Saturday.
Somehow, after scoring three goals, this match was still on edge until the final whistle. Like I said, vintage Crew.
An incorrect sending off that left Columbus without its defensive leader. Mattaritta with a late header that swerved wide. Steve Clark with a big save in the 90th minute. A long four minutes of stoppage. Clark again in the 93rd minute. (Clark earned his money in the last five or so minutes, with that second stop save-of-the-week worthy). Oh, and Clark with a big punch in the final seconds.
Really, a lot of the final numbers were counter intuitive. The Black & Gold were out-possessed and out-shot and out-shot-on-goal (that last one isn't that surprising, considering the struggles with the final touch this season). Live, though, the game always felt in control.
The two goals for New York City basically felt like "which one of these do not belong" in the big picture. First, there was a simple cross with some of the poor marking we'd seen at times during the last year. Credit goes to David Villa for finding the space, and with a guy of his track record, you might even give the defense the benefit of the doubt, but therein lies the rub — there should be no confusion, because his entire name is on the back of his jersey. "David Villa." Not Pancho Villa. ... How do you not know where he is at all times?
It's a spacing and communication issue. There were a couple of times in the first half where Michael Parkhurst looked like he was struggling with Villa on his back shoulder. This time it got him. The read on the cross has to be better. After the ball is played, Parkhurst steps forward, either on a misread or because he thinks Harrison Afful has Villa. Afful, meanwhile, seems to hedge early toward Steven Mendoza on the top of the box. Mohammed Saeid, who might have marked Mendoza, was instead waiting to provide an outlet in transition, rather than working back to provide defense. In the end, the most dangerous guy in blue is left open at the top of the 6-yard box.
The second goal was all about a turnover by Saeid in the attacking third, which left Tyson Wahl hung out to try. Turnovers in the midfield in dangerous spots? I feel like I've read this story before.
Neither goal was a systemic issue. It was just subpar play in the defensive third.
For the first 1/5th of the season, the rising water was threatening to pull the team under. The question was when the water level was reaching that of panic. Now comes the opportunity to break loose from the undertow, grab a flotation device and ride that rising tide higher.
There's a win under the belt, and next up is another home game against a Houston Dynamo team with a defense that doesn't rank far behind NYCFC's when it comes to hot messes. There will be opportunities for Columbus to continue rolling next week, and they are opportunities that have to be taken. That's followed by a challenging trip to Seattle to take on a tough but beatable Sounders.
The waters can calm quickly if Crew SC plays its cards right.