For the third time in as many matches, Columbus Crew SC had a chance to seal a spot in the MLS Cup playoffs on Sunday. For the third time, the Black & Gold failed to do so.
This week, Columbus travelled to Orlando City, the Eastern Conference’s bottom dweller, hoping to get a win to secure the postseason berth. Despite taking a second half lead, Crew SC fell 2-1, the team’s second consecutive loss and third game without a victory.
It was a slow start to the game for both teams as they settled into the match early. Fifteen minutes in, the Black & Gold earned a corner in what would start a series of six consecutive corner kicks for Columbus. There was a shout for a hand ball but no penalty kick was awarded.
In the 22nd minute, Zack Steffen came up big for Crew SC. Will Johnson was given too much space at the top of the penalty box and fired a shot that forced the U.S. National Team goalie to dive to preserve the 0-0 scoreline.
Two minutes later, Black & Gold fullback Harrison Afful had similar space near the top of the penalty area and hit a shot that was easily corralled by goalkeeper Adam Grinwis.
In the 33rd minute, Columbus center back Jonathan Mensah went up for a ball and his elbow caught Orlando forward Dom Dwyer in the face. Jonathan was issued a yellow card, which means he will miss the regular season finale next week. A few minutes later, Dwyer ran by Jonathan and shoved the Crew SC center back. He was also given a yellow card.
The two teams went into the locker room scoreless but nine minutes into the second half that changed. In the 54th minute Federico Higuain stepped up to take a free kick at the top of the penalty area and curled the effort home to give his side a 1-0 advantage.
That lead did not last long however as center back Gaston Sauro was called for a handball inside the penalty box and a penalty kick was awarded to the home side. Yoshimar Yotun stepped up in the 57th minute and his chip effort beat Steffen to tie the game at one a piece.
As the half wore on, both teams looked for the winner. Steffen had to come up big for Crew SC again and Higuain had a good chance to fire one home from inside the penalty area but his effort went high.
In stoppage time, the Black & Gold made another mistakes. And this one cost the team the game. Five minutes beyond the normal 90, Chris Mueller cut the ball back inside the penalty area and Wil Trapp was called for tripping him. This time, Sacha Kljestan stepped up and took the penalty kick, beating Steffen for the game-winning goal.
It was strange to all fans when they saw they saw that winger Justin Meram was not in the starting lineup... or as a part of the 18-man game day roster. Meram was a member of Orlando City from Jan. 29 to Aug. 3 after requesting a trade from Crew SC. Things did not work out for Meram in Orlando but he has been a starter back in Columbus since his return.
It was expected that J9 would make his return to Orlando and be a motivated player for the Black & Gold on Sunday. But he wasn’t. After the game, Andrew Erickson of The Columbus Dispatch reported that there was an arrangement in the trade that prevented Meram from playing in this game. This was not talked about all week.
If this is true, that is a big loss for Crew SC. Meram was brought back to Columbus to be a key piece in the offense and would have likely made an impact against the Lions in a game where the Black & Gold once again struggled to score.
Cause for concern
All season, fans have waited for Crew SC to start scoring goals. After all, goal scoring has never been a problem for the Black & Gold under Gregg Berhalter. It’s still not happening. On top of that, Columbus’ defense is making mistakes and conceding goals at a higher rate than the team was earlier in the year.
Heading into the postseason — or hopefully the postseason — this is not a recipe for success. Next week, Crew SC needs to get at least a point to be in the playoffs. This likely will require scoring a goal, maybe more. The Black & Gold haven’t scored from the run of play since Sept. 22, the team’s last win.
Berhalter has always had teams that play their best when the season is winding down. This group is doing the opposite now, with perhaps the worst loss of the season coming on Sunday.
What has to happen?
Crew SC need a point in the final game (Edit: Crew SC need to win the final game to ensure the team’s in the postseason. A tie would require help from other teams) to guarantee a postseason trip. Minnesota United will come to town next weekend. This is another team that is already out of the playoffs and comes in with nothing to lose. Can Columbus find a way to squeak into playoffs? Find out next Sunday at 4:30 p.m.