The Columbus Crew moved on to the MLS Cup playoffs Eastern Conference Final for the first time in three years with a nail-biting 2-0 win against 2020 expansion franchise Nashville SC at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday night. The match was completely up for grabs for its first 105 minutes, but a couple of extra time goals from Pedro Santos and Gyasi Zardes sent it Columbus’ way.
Here’s how each player performed against Nashville:
Andrew Tarbell (7.5) – The backup goalkeeper was called upon in the biggest match of the season due to Eloy Room being unavailable and responded well, most noticeably by stopping a point-blank header by Jhonder Cadiz after a corner kick in the first half. He was lucky that a Dax McCarty header went by him but struck the crossbar just a few minutes later. Tarbell didn’t have a lot of work to do from the second half on but was solid when called upon.
Harrison Afful (7) – The Ghanaian was frequently involved in the Black & Gold offense in the first half, often combining with Diaz and Zelarayan, and had a good cross to the penalty box. He stayed deeper on the field in the second half to allow Diaz more space and helped the team circulating the ball. On defense, he wasn’t spectacular but didn’t get in trouble either.
Jonathan Mensah © (7) – The captain put in another solid match, keeping things under control for Columbus’ defense during the game. Mensah had some important defensive actions and only failed to connect his passes when he tried to hit long ones, creating little or no problems for the team.
Josh Williams (6.5) – The veteran defender had his ups and downs during the match, making important stops inside the Crew’s penalty box but also being easily beat by Cadiz in the air and turning the ball over on the offensive half and generating a counter attack to Nashville. He provided the team with a good option to build from the back during most of the match and connected a fair amount of his passes.
Milton Valenzuela (6.5) – The Argentinean did a clean job on defense, but didn’t add much on the attacking side of the game. He was able to find Santos in good spots quite a few times, but never found the space to push forward and operate around the penalty box. He won most of his duels, however.
Artur (6.5) – The Brazilian had a very active start to the match, repeatedly winning the ball back for the Crew. His energy level remained high during the entire match and he helped the team keeping possession, even if he couldn’t break the lines consistently with his passing.
Darlington Nagbe (6) – The midfielder was important to help the Crew break Nashville’s pressure with his moves in tight spaces in the center of the field. He took good care of the ball and helped the Black & Gold moving it intelligently, even if he lacked some quickness and urgency on his movement at times.
Luis Diaz (7.5) – The Costa Rican returned to the starting lineup with Derrick Etienne Jr.’s absence and had a great match, combining with Zelarayan to create good chances from low crosses on the right side. At times, his runs seemed to be the Crew’s only offensive option and he was rewarded for his persistence with a beautiful assist to Zardes on the team’s second goal. Diaz also did good work on defense, tracking down Nashville’s attempts from his side.
Lucas Zelarayan (6) – The Argentinean used his technique to create space on a few occasions, especially when combining with Diaz on the right, but wasn’t as active as the team would have hoped. Even though his teammates could have done better to get him the ball, Zelarayan could also have fought harder to find space between the lines to operate. He also missed two free kicks right in front of the penalty box but showed a glimpse of his talent and vision to find Zardes behind Nashville’s defensive line on the play that ended in Crew’s first goal.
Pedro Santos (7) – The Portuguese saw a lot of the ball in the first half, but couldn’t really push it forward and help the Crew create chances over the first 45 minutes. His good movement off the ball did create a chance, but he fired it way too high. Santos kept working hard, even if he wasn’t his best day, but came up big when the Crew most needed, scoring the team’s first goal with his right foot.
Gyasi Zardes (8) – The striker was a little too isolated for most of the match and the crosses sent into the penalty box found him just once. He got some important work done on the other side of the field, though, clearing corners and free kicks from Columbus’ box. Zardes was a completely different player in extra time, taking over the game to register an assist and score a goal in a five-minute window, getting the Crew through to the Eastern Conference Final.
Emmanuel Boateng (6) – The Ghanaian winger entered the match in the second half of extra time and added some pace down the left. He had a great opportunity to score in the final minutes, but Joe Willis deflected it.
Krisztian Nemeth (N/A) – The forward replaced Zardes for the final eight minutes and didn’t get very involved in the game.
Chris Cadden (N/A) –The Scottish defender came in for Zelarayan with five minutes to go and didn’t have time to impact the match.
Caleb Porter (7.5) – His team had trouble in creating chances against Nashville for a huge portion of the match, but that certainly wasn’t something just the Crew struggled with this year. Columbus showed good flexibility to adapt to the game, though, using Diaz as much as possible to attack down the right and found a way to avoid Nashville’s aerial game after the team’s initial chances. Porter was fortunate to not have to change much of the team’s structure even with as many as six absences, but he did a great job in preparing the players in a limited training window and kept them motivated and focused in such a long and frustrating match.
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