A hundred minutes and a drenching later, the vital matchup between Columbus Crew SC and Vancouver Whitecaps FC, finally got underway in front of a sparse—albeit patient—crowd Saturday night at MAPFRE Stadium.
The Black & Gold fans who stuck it out during the severe weather delay shouldn't be judged if they ended up deciding that the downpour was the more pleasant part of the evening. Of the two teams that came into Saturday's matchup hoping to preserve slim playoff chances, the home side would prove unable to overcome its own mistakes.
Any of the positive energy and momentum from an early Ola Kamara goal was wiped out by a Crew SC defender's own goal just minutes later. Kamara's goal wouldn't have been out of place in a martial arts film, stabbing at the ball with his foot for a decisive volley into the net in the 11th minute.
Gaston Sauro, making just his second consecutive start for Crew SC since rehabilitating from a PCL tear, provided the accidental equalizer for Vancouver just two minutes later. With much of the Whitecaps trailing the play, Sauro headed in a Russell Teibert cross that first clipped captain Michael Parkhurst's outstretched right foot at a sharp angle. Goalkeeper Steve Clark had shifted his weight instants prior and couldn't recover to save Sauro's errant ricochet.
Sauro was on the field with Parkhurst and the Norwegian newcomer, Nicolai Naess, as Gregg Berhalter tried something unconventional, a marked step away from his preferred 4-2-3-1.
Without Wil Trapp, recovering from concussion, and Federico Higuain, who has been dealing with re-inflammation after coming back from hernia surgery, the team necessarily had to adjust their shape.
The hybrid formation head coach Berhalter elected to go with was something of a blend of a midfield-heavy 3-5-2 and an offense-friendly 3-4-3. Backstopped by Naess, Parkhurst and Sauro, Berhalter encouraged the outside backs to focus more than usual on flanking and changed things up in the midfield most of all.
While Tony Tchani usually functions as a center defensive mid on the left side for Columbus, he was instead officially listed tonight as the starting No. 10, in place of the absent Higuain. He did tend toward dropping back with a slight skew toward right midfield in a refreshing change of routine, and he was highly involved in anchoring possessions and getting the ball to teammates on either side of him. Winger Ethan Finlay frequently surged forward to roam opposite true striker Ola Kamara. Additionally, Justin Meram proactively became more attack-minded later in the match, playing higher into the Whitecap defensive third as Columbus would search for a score.
In a familiar story, Crew SC was dominating possession, passing accuracy and shots on target at the break by wide margins. Vancouver, squaring off against a foreign formation of which they had very little game film, was woefully ineffectual in the first half in generating only three chances and earning no corner kicks.
Ultimately, however, as has been the case many a time for Columbus during a season of poor results amid heightened expectation, devastating miscues cost the home team dearly.
Both the lead-securing and insurance goals Whitecaps FC scored were put in by substitutes. Andrew Jacobson and Erik Hurtado respectively joined the match in the 55th and 61st minutes and then went on to score their goals in the 74th and 82nd minutes.
Jacobson's tally was a textbook right-footed low ball from just outside the penalty arc and Naess' dive to block the shot was too little and too late for a well-taken strike.
Hurtado's, on the other hand, was simple cleanup of Columbus' failure to get a clearance or keeper's gloves on the ball after a Vancouver corner blooped down upon a scrum in the six-yard box. The sequence closely resembled the one that led to Fabian Herbers' second-chance score on August 24 for Philadelphia after the ball deflected off Crew SC's Hector Jimenez.
Columbus' quality of play against Whitecaps FC drastically fell off after the deficit was pushed to two, especially agonizing for the supporters since the side had enjoyed and squandered an early advantage. They simply had no response for the quick Vancouver counter once the visitors figured out how to exploit their weaknesses.
Crew SC's frustration built down the stretch. It finally bubbled over when Tchani put an exclamation point on the defeat by getting an ejection in the 87th minute. The Cameroon native swept the legs of Hurtado and earned a straight red card from referee Fotis Bazakos for his actions.
While Vancouver gets to ride its winning wave into playing significant CONCACAF Champions League action at Sporting Kansas City Tuesday, Columbus conversely must regroup before a road trip to sixth-place Orlando City SC next Saturday. A road victory in Florida is essential to avoiding elimination from playoff contention, with only seven matches remaining in the regular season.