Gold smoke from an empty MAPFRE Stadium supporters section signaled what the incoming Columbus Crew win. It took extra time, but the Black & Gold pushed past Nashville SC with a 2-0 in the MLS Cup playoffs on Sunday night. Goals from Pedro Santos and Gyasi Zardes provided the margin as Columbus moves on in the Eastern Conference Final.
Columbus applied some pressure early but only had a sixth-minute Santos effort from the top of the penalty box that Nashville blocked to show for it. As the half progressed, the home side looked more comfortable in possession while Nashville assumed a tight defensive block. The result was the Crew took most of the ball, but couldn’t push into the penalty area. Nashville struggled on recovery as the Black & Gold counter-pressed well to stifle any counter.
The Crew was able to break down the Nashville pressure with an early Lucas Zelarayan pass in the 22nd minute. The threaded ball found Luis Diaz on the right side who immediately crossed into Santos. The Portuguese winger’s one-touch shot was high and wide, but it the first glimpse of a fluid Black & Gold attack.
Nashville nearly broke through with a flurry of attempts between the 24th minute and the 27th minute. The best chance came after breaking out in a counter in the 27th minute and earning a corner kick. Daniel Lovitz sent the set piece into the Crew penalty box and Dax McCarty’s attempt hit the crossbar. Nashville was unable to further test goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell before Columbus cleared the danger.
During the deluge, the visitors let loose with six shots when they took the attack to the Crew but failed to break through.
The near goal changed the momentum as the visitors held possession as the game wound towards halftime. Nashville didn’t have the volume of chances, but the Crew attack wasn’t able to keep the ball against the counter-press. Neither team tested the opposing goalkeeper and the game went into halftime scoreless but with Nashville the better side.
After the break, the game reset as the Crew once again asserted dominance on the ball. The possession came to naught as Nashville once again was comfortable in defense, especially as the ball progressed into the final third. Columbus worked a Zelarayan chance in the 68th minute that was blocked as Nashville continued to vigorously defend in depth.
Nashville couldn’t recreate the success the team had in the first half, breaking the Crew counter-press and often ceded the ball back quickly under the Black & Gold pressure.
The Crew did create a solid chance, coming off a set piece in the 72nd minute. After Zelarayan was fouled 20 yards out, Santos curled a left-footed ball just wide of the post. Nashville followed with a Walker Zimmerman header on frame, but Tarbell was in position to claim it.
Columbus finally got a shot on goal in the 79th minute. The Crew quickly switched fields through a pass to Zelarayan. He pushed it wide to Diaz. The winger’s cross found the surging Zardes, who’s clipped shot was parried by Nashville goalkeeper Joe Willis.
Neither team was able to send a shot on goal as the game wound towards 90 minutes. With little action, the referee only added a single minute of stoppage time before calling time with extra time looming.
The defensive deadlock broke open in the first period of extra time as the hosts were finally able to unsettle the stalwart Nashville defense.
In the 99th minute, Zelarayan released Zardes into the final third with a well-weighted pass. The striker settled and surveyed his options and cut the ball back to a rushing Santos. His sweeping right-footed shot went past a stranded Willis and gave the Crew the 1-0 lead.
The Crew tallied an insurance goal moments later. As Nashville pushed up in an attempt to tie the game, Luis Diaz sent a long pass into space behind the defense. Zardes picked up the ball with only Willis to beat and he calmly finished off the one on one to make it 2-0 in the 103rd minute.
That would be enough, as the Black & Gold saw out the remaining few minutes to secure a second straight MLS Cup playoff victory.
Neither team was able to break through during regulation as chances were few and far between. That’s no surprise given the defensive records of the two clubs. Nashville gave up a league third-best 22 goals through 23 games. The second-best defensive record in the league belonged to the hosts, only giving up 21 goals in 23 games.
The winner-take-all match was a cagy affair. While Nashville had 17 shot attempts, the visitors only put four on target. Columbus tallied 16 shots but likewise only put four on target.
Pressed into Service
Head coach Caleb Porter has his preferred first starting 11, but the COVID-19 positive tests this week changed his game preparation. The Crew players afflicted with the coronavirus are reportedly doing well, but the forced absences saw two new starters into the lineup. Tarbell and Diaz responded.
Tarbell, filling in for Eloy Room, recorded four saves on his way to a shutout, the team’s first since Sept. 19... against Nashville. He was a steady presence in goal and handled the challenge well. Diaz has been in and out of the starting lineup. Coming in for Derrick Etienne Jr. on Sunday, Diaz played his usual direct game and had three key passes and more importantly, an assist.
A spot at MLS Cup is on the line as the Crew hosts the New England Revolution next Sunday at 3 p.m. ET in the Eastern Conference Final. It’s the first trip to the ECF since the team lost a two-legged series against Toronto in 2017.