In a blustery, cold MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday afternoon, the Columbus Crew dug deep and got a massive three points against the league-leading Philadelphia Union as Artur and Krisztian Nemeth powered the Black & Gold to a confidence-reviving 2-1 victory.
The Crew was buoyed by the return of Lucas Zelarayan, Darlington Nagbe, and Gyasi Zardes to the starting lineup. The trio hadn’t played together since the Sept. 6 match against FC Cincinnati. It didn’t mark the return of the free-wheeling attack of the summer, but the trio added an extra spark.
That spark almost ignited immediately as Columbus nearly broke through very early with a sixth-minute chance. Zelarayan slipped his defender with a cut and dribble. Drifting with the ball just wide of the penalty area, the Crew playmaker bent in a ball right on the head of Zardes from eight yards out that blazed just high, skimming the bar.
The Union almost capitalized on a Jonathan Mensah error in the eighth minute. Goalkeeper Eloy Room played a very sort pass to the center back who casually looked for his next pass. Kacper Przybylko quickly closed down the space and Jonathan’s pass was blocked back at goal from inside the six-yard box but Room quickly stopped the block turned shot to keep the game scoreless.
Columbus started to ease into the game and control the ball but failed to penetrate the stalwart Union defense. The Crew was forced to pass along the back and swing the ball around, but couldn’t break the Philadelphia lines.
The visitors consistently presented danger and the ability to strike quickly. Brenden Aaronson’s pass found Sergio Santos on the right and the forward’s cross cut through the penalty box and found Aaronson on the other side. After a ping-pong set of passes between Aaronson, Olivier Mbaizo, Jack Elliot, Mbaizo and then to Jamiro Monteiro. Monteiro’s square pass found Mbaizo, who took a chance from 18 yards. Room got a touch on the shot and it rang the post.
Shortly after, the Crew found its best chance up to that point in the 30th minute playing quickly through transition. Zardes picked up the loose ball off of Pedro Santos and brought it forward before playing a square pass to Zelarayan. The playmaker played a quick-release, field-switching pass to Derrick Etienne Jr. whose wide-angle shot was high after being clipped by Kai Wagner.
Columbus found the breakthrough in the 36th minute and it came off a little defensive pressure to win the ball back after Alejandro Bedoya’s short clearance. Artur took the 50-50 ball and played it wide to fullback Harrison Afful. The midfielder took the return pass and fired a low right-footed shot from 20 yards out past backup keeper Joe Bendik and into the far corner to give the home team a 1-0 lead.
Neither team tested the opposing keeper the rest of the half as the Union went into the break trailing for the first time all season.
The Union opened the second half aggressively, trying to tie the game. The visitors nearly did with Kacper Przybylko redirecting a Wagner cutback cross in the 47th minute that forced a strong Room save. Philadelphia launched three more shots in the first 10 minutes of the second half.
Philadelphia found the equalizer in the 57th minute as Wagner drove a ball forward from deep. The pass caught Jonathan flat-footed and he struggled to catch up to Sergio Santos, clipping the Union forward in the penalty box. It was an easy call for referee Allan Chapman and Monteiro finished the penalty to even the score.
The visitors continued to carry the attack to the reeling Crew defense, firing in a quick succession of shots just after the penalty, including a couple of goalline chances from Mark McKenzie and Santos. Room remained up to the task.
Philadelphia pressed for a winner, but it was the Crew that found the next goal on a counter attack. With the Union pushed forward, a quick Santos outlet pass wide right found substitute Luis Diaz in space. He bent a brilliant that found fellow substitute Nemeth making a snaking far post-run and the forward cleanly finished with one touch after Bendik missed the interception.
The win was secured after late heroics from Room. The goalkeeper reached back to parry an 89th-minute Przybylko shot that looked destined for goal. He then made a 93rd-minute kick save to keep the Union from equalizing.
Cast your fate to the wind
The Crew had the wind at the team’s back for most of the first half and it made the difference in how sharp the Union could attack. The visitors struggled with their passing, especially anything over 20 yards. Columbus didn’t use the wind as an advantage, but it wasn’t the disadvantage that it was for Philadelphia.
In the second half, the gusts died down a little and didn’t have as big of an impact on the Crew attack as the Union faced in the first half. The visitors enjoyed not having to fight the wind and the Columbus defense and it showed in the attacking numbers. Philadelphia had five shots in the first half but racked up 17 in the second half.
The return of Zelarayan, Nagbe and Zardes to the starting lineup was the storyline at the beginning of the game, but the result was decided by a couple of reserves. Diaz has shuffled in and out of the lineup throughout 2020. He’s shown scintillating signs of form and struggled at other points. Nemeth is the hired gun to give the Crew attack some punch off the bench. It was their fresh legs that made the difference.
Nemeth isn’t taking the starting spot from Zardes, but he provides a valuable option for head coach Caleb Porter. Fanendo Adi was expected to be the backup, but he has struggled with injury and form. Nemeth is a savvy veteran that made a savvy run to the far post and clinically finished. Diaz has speed, but he showed more on the goal. His brilliant cross forced an unsteady Bendik into a tough spot.
These are the types of performances that the Crew has missed during the team’s recent slump where wins turned into ties and ties into losses. On Sunday, the Black & Gold snatched three points.
With the win, Columbus stands at 11-5-5, on 38 points and in third place in the Eastern Conference, three points ahead of Orlando City SC. The Crew is now all but assured of hosting a playoff game. The Black & Gold’s busy week starts with a game in Orlando on Wednesday night in a makeup game originally scheduled for Oct. 11 at 7:30 p.m. ET before ending the regular season at home on Sunday against Atlanta United.