The Columbus Crew may not have ended the Major League Soccer regular season on the best run of form, but needing a win on the final day of the year to ensure a home game in the MLS Cup playoffs, the Black & Gold got just that. Courtesy of attackers Lucas Zelarayan and Gyasi Zardes, Columbus earned a 2-1 victory against Atlanta United at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
After an evenly played first 10 minutes of the game, there was a penalty kick shout when the Crew’s Harrison Afful and Atlanta’s Marcelino Moreno collided during a footrace into Columbus’ penalty area in the 14th minute. While the visitors ask referee Ismail Elfath for a spot kick, none was given.
The first good shooting effort of the contest came six minutes later. The Black & Gold did a good job to work the ball from one side of the field to the other around the top of the penalty box. Midfielder Darlington Nabgbe found Derrick Etienne Jr. tucked inside and the winger tried a curling shot from the top of the 18-yard box that was deflected high of the goal.
In the 24th minute, Atlanta was awarded a penalty kick by Elfath. On a ball played in behind the Crew’s backline, Atlanta forward Jon Gallagher beat center back Jonathan Mensah to the ball in the penalty box. Goalkeeper Eloy Room came racing off his line and was judged to have taken down Gallagher. But Elfath was instructed by his Video Assistant Review to take a second look at the call and it turned out the United forward went down before contact was made.
Just four minutes after the call was reversed, more disappointment came for Atlanta. Winger Pedro Santos chipped a ball into Zardes just outside the 18-yard box. The Columbus forward knocked the ball down to fullback Milton Valenzuela who pushed forward. The Argentine carried into the penalty area before playing a square pass to Zelarayan. The Black & Gold’s No. 10’s touch took him by one defender before he chipped the ball over a sliding Brad Guzan for the opening goal.
The game settled a bit after the Crew went up 1-0 with the home side controlling much of the play and Atlanta struggling to keep the ball.
Just before halftime, Santos has a golden chance to double the advantage. The Black & Gold came on the counter attack with Etienne one v. one with George Bello. Etienne waited for Santos to catch up with him before playing a well-timed pass to the winger. Unfortunately for Santos, the Portuguese leaned back on his strike and put it high and wide.
It was clear coming out of the locker room to begin the second half that United felt the pressure of the MLS Cup playoffs slipping away. Needing to win this game, Atlanta pushed for the equalizer but was unable to get much of a look on goal.
Santos had another very good chance in the 53rd minute. The winger, tucked inside, elected to have a shot from 25 yards out. Guzan was equal to the shot, making a diving save to push the ball wide and keep the deficit at 1-0.
Three minutes later and the Crew did double the team’s lead, this time through Zardes. Again on the counter attack, Artur played a well-weighted pass out of the back to find the forward streaking down the left side. Zardes remained composed, attacking into the penalty box before slotting the ball under Guzan for the 2-0 advantage.
Quickly on the other end of the field, United got and took the chance to get back into the game. Jurgen Damm beat Valenzuela to a through ball played into the 18-yard box and the Columbus left back went to ground to make a tackle. Valenzuela missed the ball, however, getting Damm and this time there was no doubt about the call from Elfath.
Moreno stepped up to the spot and sent Room the wrong way, putting the ball in the bottom corner. Just like that, the deficit was halved.
The Black & Gold did their best to take the sting out of the game after Atlanta pulled within one goal. Both teams created half-chances but nothing overly dangerous, including a few headed efforts by former Crew forward Adam Jahn for United.
Columbus did see Artur get checked by the medical team twice and the midfielder was eventually substituted.
The match had one last flash point as Atlanta defender Franco Escobar was shown a second yellow card just before stoppage time. Frustrated, Escobar went over to the bench area as he walked off the field and appeared to shove/headbutt one of the medical staff. This caused both teams to rush to the area before the defender took his shirt off and walked to the locker room.
Once cooler heads prevailed, Atlanta had one final chance on a corner kick. With Gazan forward, the ball was played long and the United goalkeeper was given a yellow card for a late tackle. In the end, however, the Black & Gold held on to get the victory.
The frustration for Atlanta was evident as the game came to a close. This is a team that hasn’t been in MLS long but has been successful. The prospect of missing the playoffs for the first time is not something the visitors dealt with well. But the Crew avoided getting caught up in the antics and didn’t do anything that could jeopardize the team going forward.
The MLS Cup playoffs are coming
After a disappointing first year under head coach Caleb Porter in 2019, the Crew is back in the postseason for the 16th time in team history. Columbus has now made the postseason in five of the last seven seasons and will have a chance to bring home the club’s second MLS Cup championship.
The Black & Gold miraculously earned the third seed in the Eastern Conference with the win combined with Nashville SC’s comeback against Orlando City SC. Columbus will face the New York Red Bulls in the first round of the MLS Cup playoffs with a date and time yet to be announced.