Saturday afternoon was a celebration at MAPFRE Stadium. Columbus Crew SC was saved and remaining in its rightful city for years to come. Fans gathered in large numbers to see the Black & Gold open the 2019 season against the New York Red Bulls. The energy in the stadium was palpable.
The game on the field? That left something to be desired. Columbus drew 1-1 with a Red Bulls side that was in nearly full rotation after concluding a two-leg series in the CONCACAF Champions League earlier in the week. While the use of mostly a second team didn’t surprise the Crew, it certainly didn’t make a draw at home to open the year any easier to swallow.
“In the end, I think we feel like it is two points dropped, for sure,” head coach Caleb Porter said postgame. “Anytime at home that you don’t get three points, you’re gonna feel that way.”
Porter, who was in charge of his first game with the Black & Gold after taking over in January, was not pleased with how his team started the game. After a preseason where his side was rarely tested, the expectation was that Columbus would come out and control games, implementing not only the possession style the team became famous for the last five years under Gregg Berhalter but also a more aggressive approach in the offensive end.
This was never going to be easy against a Red Bulls side that is not only talented and deep, but also plays a style that tends to make how the Black & Gold want to play more difficult. Even with most of their reserves on the field, RBNY played the same way and executed this system well.
The Crew allowed an early goal to New York just over five minutes into the season after the defenders were pulled out of position and the marking in the penalty box was not good enough. For a Black & Gold side that wants to have the ball in the attacking third, this was not the start the team hoped for.
“To be honest with you, that first goal they scored I think gave them life, gave them confidence, kind of stunned us, came out of nowhere,” Porter said. “A cross in the box, good finish. Credit to them. In that first half, they disrupted us and took us off our game.”
The Crew responded well, dominating the half in terms of possession, set pieces and shots but struggled to breakdown a now compact Red Bulls’ backline. When the Black & Gold did get opportunities in and around the penalty box, the finishing was not there to pull the game level.
New York, meanwhile, was able to play their game and make the first half ugly. With the lead, the visitors were content to sit back and absorb Columbus’ pressure, allowing the home side to play in front of them but not often get behind. The Red Bulls were the tougher team most of the half, winning first and second balls and doing the little things to hold the lead.
“We knew they were going to be direct, we knew they were going to fight for second balls,” Porter explained. “No surprises there but I thought that they won far too many second balls and it led to them obviously being able to create the goal. We didn’t get into a rhythm in that first half and they were able to play the game on their terms, disrupt us and make it the type of game they play, very combative and direct. I thought they executed well in that regard and we never got into a rhythm.”
Center back Gaston Sauro finally broke through for the Black & Gold just before halftime with a header from Federico Higuain’s corner kick. The attempt took a deflection before it beat Luis Robles, but Columbus was on the board.
The momentum of the equalizer carried into the second half, but momentum only takes a team so far. While Porter thought his team was able to find that rhythm it lacked in the first half and move the ball better, the clear chances to equalize just weren’t there. Over the final 45 minutes and stoppage time, the Crew — the team that was pushing more for a goal — was out-shot 10-6 despite having much more of the ball.
“I think we exploited some good spots behind their backline,” captain Wil Trapp said. “They were pretty high at times. But then it’s just about the runs in the box and then can we have the composure in the penalty box to create the chance, but also to finish it... It’s something we just have to continue to work on. Just that hunger and desire to do everything we can to score.”
While many fans left MAPFRE Stadium just happy that a game that some thought would never happen actually did, the Crew players left the field disappointed. This was an opportunity in front of a big crowd, with much of Major League Soccer watching, to get a win at home and really make a statement on what was otherwise a joyous day.
“I thought it was wonderful,” Trapp said of the home crowd, “but I think we’re all disappointed we didn’t win. These are the types of games where you can really build that momentum with the fan experience and the supporters.”
As the season winds down, this team may look back on this game as an opportunity missed, especially if the group is fighting to make the MLS Cup playoffs. But there is plenty of time between Game 1 and worrying about the playoffs and how this game is viewed by the Black & Gold will be determined by what the team does in between.
For Porter, this is a chance for his team to learn a valuable lesson that the players can take with them heading into the rest of the year
“In some ways, this is a good way to start because this league isn’t easy. Three points are never easy,” he said. “We’re not always going to be able to just walk out on the field and just pass the ball around. This league is tough. If you let your guard down you’ll get punched in the face. If you’re not ready to fight and battle and do the little things that you need to, you can give up goals and I think it is just a good reminder of that. There will be other ups and downs this year, that’s for sure, but I think this game gets us ready for the grind. Because this league is a grind.”