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Zardes, Higuain, squad rotation propel Crew SC to 3-0 over the Chicago Fire

Crew SC go to five straight unbeaten with a win over the East rivals.

Sam Fahmi

See what Gregg Berhalter says after Columbus Crew SC’s 3-0 win over the Chicago Fire.

Posted by Massive Report on Saturday, May 12, 2018

Columbus Crew SC capped off three games in eight days with perhaps the best performance of the season. If the players were tired from the busy stretch, it certainly didn’t show as the Black & Gold dispatched of the Chicago Fire 3-0 on Saturday night at MAPFRE Stadium behind a Gyasi Zardes brace and an emphatic finish from Federico Higuain.

The intrigue began quickly as off the opening kickoff, Crew SC midfielder Pedro Santos pulled up lame. The winger grabbed at his hamstring on his first hard sprint. Although he came back in the game briefly, he was quickly replaced by the second-year Niko Hansen.

Before he was replaced, however, Santos was a part of a good early opportunity. The Portuguese winger fed the overlapping Harrison Afful into the penalty box. The fullback fired a shot that struck the post and rolled away without anyone able to finish.

Two minutes after Hansen checked into the game, he was involved in another good scoring opportunity. Coming from a corner, the ball bounced around the penalty box. The winger had an acrobatic attempt that clearly struck the hand of Fire defender Brandon Vincent, but, even after video review, no penalty kick was awarded.

In the 21st minute, it was Zack Steffen’s turn to thank his post. A cutback pass inside the penalty box found Chicago midfielder Elliot Collier near the top of the six-yard box, but his one-time effort clanged off the woodwork.

Three minutes later and the Fire nearly took the lead again, this time on a mistake from Steffen. The goalkeeper took a poor touch on a back pass that went off Nemanja Nikolic and straight to the head of Aleksander Katai. The attacking midfielder was not ready for the ball though and headed his attempt wide.

In the 27th minute, Columbus finally got the penalty kick the team felt it deserved after Zardes was pulled down in the penalty box going for a header. Higuain stepped up and rifled the spot kick attempt into the roof of the net for the 1-0 advantage.

A furiously-paced first half carried over into the second 45 minutes. Just five minutes into the second stanza, Hansen had a fantastic dribble over half of the field. He cut into the penalty box and found Zardes open for an easy tap in and a 2-0 lead.

Four minutes later and winger Mike Grella put on his own dribbling display on the opposite side. From a throw in, Grella slipped by his man with the ball, but the finish left a lot to be desired, flying well over the crossbar.

In the 70th minute, it was another finish for Crew SC, and once again it came from Zardes. Central midfielder Ricardo Clark dribbled towards the penalty area with his head up and played a pass for the run of Grella at the top of the box. The savvy veteran recognized the run of the striker behind him and let the ball roll through his legs. Zardes curled a shot into the corner of the net for his second goal of the game and MLS leading eighth of the year.

Columbus managed the final minutes successfully, controlling the play and not letting a tired Fire side create anything too dangerous. The Black & Gold now end a three-game-in-eight-day stretch with seven points following a 0-0 draw at the Seattle Sounders playing down a man for 75 minutes, the 1-0 win over the Philadelphia Union on Wednesday and Saturday’s 3-0 result.

Shutouts galore!

The 3-0 victory on Saturday night marked the third consecutive shutout for Columbus. All three of those clean sheets came over the three-games-in-eight-day stretch. What perhaps is even more impressive is that it’s been since early 2011 since Crew SC last had three straight shutouts.

For reference, Zack Steffen said he was in high school when that last occurred.

Squad rotation

Under head coach Gregg Berhalter, Crew SC has traditionally struggled managing match congestion. That was obviously not the case over this recent stretch, so what’s the difference? One word, Depth.

Berhalter was able to rotate his team successfully, despite some difficult matches. The only two players who started each game were Zack Steffen and Gyasi Zardes, and the goalkeeper was the only one to play all 270 minutes.

This was a noticeable advantage in this contest, as the Black & Gold ran the Fire into the ground. Even late in the game, the Columbus players were still running and pushing forward, despite being up three goals, while Chicago was long out of gas.

What’s next

Crew SC now sits in second place in the Eastern Conference with 21 points, but have played more games than anyone else in the East. On a points per game basis, the Black & Gold are still ranked fourth in the East, but already have their points in the bank.

After the busy week, Columbus will go back to a more normal schedule, traveling to Boston to take on the New England Revolution next Saturday night.