The Crew had lost 8 of their last 9 games heading into this battle with NYCFC. Then came the news that they had just lost their best player to a season-ending injury. NYCFC had only lost a single game all season, though they had accumulated the most amount of draws in the league. And wouldn’t you know it, the game ended in a 2-2 draw, despite Columbus holding the lead two different times.
What can we take away from a match filled with goals, fouls, and a makeshift Crew lineup? Let’s find out.
Pedro Santos is the Higuain Replacement
With the rash of injuries hitting Columbus, players have been playing out of their natural positions throughout the season. When the Crew released the starting lineup for the NYCFC match, one slight surprise was the slotting of Pedro Santos into the attacking midfield role. With the maestro, Federico Higuain out for the remainder of the season with an ACL tear and with no natural replacement on the roster, coach Caleb Porter had to get creative. On paper, the Crew were listed in Porter’s typical 4-2-3-1 setup. However, in execution it was more of a 4-3-3 (or as Porter explained in the post-game press conference, a 4-2-1-3).
Santos is a crafty winger and looked comfortable as ever in the attacking midfield role from the opening kickoff. He was all over the field, finding space and making runs in multiple channels of the offensive third of the pitch. After a couple of missed opportunities, Pedro finally found paydirt, with a 62nd minute goal off one-time strike to the far post. Santos is clearly playing with a confidence we haven’t seen before in Columbus. Porter has brought the best out of him and moving forward he is undoubtedly Pipa’s replacement.
Storybook endings rarely become a reality
In his final match as a member of the Columbus Crew, Zack Steffan earned only a draw, certainly a disappointing result. Prior to the match, my heart was telling me it would be a 1-0 victory for Columbus and Zack would leave town with the proper sendoff. However, the heart is rarely accurate at predicting the outcomes of such events and this match proved no different.
Steffan’s final match stat line in Columbus consisted of two goals-allowed, two saves, and a punch. Undoubtedly, it wasn’t how the club and Steffan in particular envisioned the game concluding. In fairness to Zack, the 76th minute strike from Valentín Castellanos was a beauty. It was a 35-yard bomb uncontested and perfectly placed. Few goalkeepers on the planet could have made that save.
When the final whistle blew, Steffan’s face revealed disappointment and exasperation. He wanted to go out a winner, preferably with a shutout. While his departing match wasn’t the result he and the fans sought, Steffan has left a legacy in Columbus, demonstrated by the “Thank you, Zack” chant that rang from the Nordeke in the game’s final moments. The next man up in goal will have some big shoes to fill.
Fouls galore and questionable officiating
In a match that was at times very rough and tumble, Columbus had a season-high 20 fouls, while NYCFC had 17. Head referee, Joseph Dickerson nearly lost control of the match during the second-half, as the tackles and fouls mounted. During a string of consecutive plays, the Crew’s Luis Argudo went down just outside of the box by what seemed to be a cardable offense, no call was given. As NYCFC gained the subsequent possession, the Crew were called for two very light fouls, which incensed Columbus fans and coach Caleb Porter. An emphatic and perplexed Porter could only baffling ask “What is going on?” to the fourth official.
Overall, Dickerson managed the game well outside of that brief span of time. The real conundrum was why the officials did not make an official video review. After the match, Porter was still uncertain as to what transpired.
The Black & Gold earned 11 corner kicks, 10 of which were during the first half. Higuain previously was the team’s dead ball specialist, without him the team relied heavily on Santos and David Guzman. Between the two, they served in in-swinging balls into the six-yard box. The Crew crowded the goalkeeper and the service lead to dangerous opportunities.
The Crew clearly spent a lot of time on these in-swingers in training. The runs and placement of the corners were too deliberate to not have been purposeful. Guzman hit them from the right side with his right-foot and Santos curled them in with his left-foot, from the left side. None of them ultimately led to a goal, but they came close a multitude of times with Guzman twice trying to score directly from the corner.