Charleston, SC. — If Hell Is Real, Columbus Crew SC were in heaven on Saturday night. The Black & Gold capped off the 2019 preseason undefeated with a 3-0 win over in-state rivals FC Cincinnati in the third and final game of the Carolina Challenge Cup.
Columbus got on the board early courtesy of last season’s leading scorer, Gyasi Zardes. Winger Pedro Santos tucked inside and, with his back to the goal, flicked a pass to Federico Higuain. The midfield maestro quickly played a through ball to Zardes and the forward fired a shot to the back post and into the net.
Zardes continued to be a menace to the Cincinnati backline throughout the opening portions of the first half. The forward twice got behind the FCC defense, once finishing his chance, but was ruled offside on both occasions.
The Crew continued to control the play throughout the first half, possessing the ball and moving the Cincinnati players all over the field. The MLS expansion side struggled to get the ball, relying on Columbus mistakes to gain possession.
In the 15th minute, FC Cincy finally had its first chance of the game. FCC went direct, looking for forward Fanendo Adi over the top. The forward attempted to bring the ball down but his first touch let him down and Black & Gold goalkeeper Zack Steffen was able to collect. As it turned out, the assistant referee had his flag up for offside, so nothing would have come from the play had Adi controlled the ball.
Four minutes later, Adi appeared to be in a dangerous spot, getting behind center back Jonathan Mensah. Jonathan’s center back partner, Gaston Sauro, hurried across the field to win the ball from Adi and clear it out for a throw in.
After 20 minutes, the Crew doubled the team’s lead, once again through Zardes. Fullback Hector Jimenez got forward and crossed the ball, finding Zardes’ head. The effort was blocked by a Cincinnati defender but came right back to the Columbus forward, who finished into the bottom corner to double the lead.
A scary moment for the Crew occurred in the 24th minute when Adi again got in behind the Black & Gold defense. Jonathan was judged to have pulled down the FCC forward at the top of the penalty area with no one but Steffen between him and the goal. The center referee went to his pocked but only showed the Black & Gold defender a yellow card. The ensuing free kick was deflected away.
Four minutes after Jonathan was cautioned, a red card was showed but this one went to Cincinnati. FC Cincy winger Roland Lamah went to ground on a dangerous tackle on Santos right in front of the Crew bench. Coaches and substitutes jumped to their feet, a mini scuffle broke out and Lamah was sent off.
With the man advantage, the Black & Gold’s dominance only increased and in the 33rd minute, Columbus nearly added a third goal. Santos dribbled by multiple Cincinnati defenders before laying a ball off to fellow winger Justin Meram near the penalty spot. The Black & Gold veteran fired a one-time shot that was cleared off the line by an FCC defender.
The Crew did not let their foot off the gas in the second half either. Just two minutes into the 45, Jimenez found Santos in the left corner of the penalty box. The winger cut to his left foot and curled a shot into the far corner for a 3-0 lead.
With a three-goal lead, the Black & Gold continued to attack but were content with taking the sting out of the game. Cincinnati did have the team’s best chance to get a goal of the game in the 63rd minute. Defender Matthieu Deplagne got on the end of a cross and headed the ball off the post.
The Black & Gold kept control for much of the remainder of the match, seeing the game out for the 3-0 win.
A bit of revenge
The first and only meeting between these two Ohio teams prior to Saturday night came in the 2017 U.S. Open Cup. Then a USL side, FC Cincinnati upset the Crew 1-0 at Nippert Stadium to advance in the tournament. While this game was just a preseason match — although it was part of a tournament — it will at least feel good for the Black & Gold to show they are still the kings of Ohio.
With Cincinnati joining MLS this year, this is the first of many meetings between these new rivals. The two teams are scheduled to play twice in 2019, once on Aug. 10 at MAPFRE Stadium and then again 15 days later in Cincinnati.
Three-peat Challenge Cup champions?
The Crew will have to wait to wait to find out if they are taking home the Carolina Challenge Cup for the third straight year and fourth time overall. After two 1-1 draws in the opening games of the preseason tournament, the Black & Gold will have to wait to see the result of the second game between the Chicago Fire and the Charleston Battery. The Fire would have to win by four to deny Columbus the three-peat.
The next time the Crew take the field in a game, it will be for real. The Black & Gold open the 2019 MLS regular season on March 2 against the New York Red Bulls at home. That game will kick off at 4:30 p.m. ET on Saturday.