The Columbus Crew ended the preseason without a loss as they scored four goals in the first half against the Houston Dynamo to win 4-1 in the Sun Cup finale behind two Gyasi Zardes goals, and one each from Jonathan Mensah and Lucas Zelarayan.
The Crew just as fast as they did on Wednesday night. Harrison Afful sent in a quick pass to Artur and the Brazilian was able to chip the ball across the goalmouth from the end line. The Dynamo defense was caught flat and Zardes easily scored on the open net to put Columbus up 1-0 just after 30 seconds from the opening kick.
Columbus doubled the lead just a few short minutes later. Pedro Santos curled in a left footed service and found Jonathan unmarked inside the six-yard box. The central defender powered a header into the back of the net and extended the lead to 2-0 before the fifth minute.
Houston’s terrible defense again gave the Crew another golden chance in the 16th minute. Goalkeeper Eloy Room booted a ball that was headed back by a Houston defender at midfield. Zelarayan corralled the ball and ran past another Dynamo defender that slipped. He held off his defender, created a bit of space, and then calmly chipped the ball past the keeper to finish the one on one to make it 3-0.
The fourth goal came in the 23rd minute and again it came from the right side. After a long outlet found Afful, the Ghanian right back fired in a long grounded cross that Zardes hammered home from close range. The Crew striker’s brace made it 4-0 on the night. It was a commanding lead that Columbus wouldn’t relinquish.
The Dynamo alternated between deploying a high and mid press that slowed the Crew attack through the rest of the first half. Neither side would create a high quality chance, but former Crew winger Niko Hansen sent a shot over goal towards the end of the half while Mauro Manotas sent his chance off the counter attack well wide.
The Crew would gift Houston an opening goal early in the second half. Vito Wormgoor played a pass out of the back to an under pressure Artur. The Brazilian midfielder coughed up the ball and Tommy McNamera finished with ease to cut the deficit to 4-1 in the 52nd minute.
The Dynamo nearly scored twice more in the second half. An errant Eloy Room pass in the 58th minute was only stopped by quick thinking from the Curacao goalkeeper. His sliding tackle slowed the Houston attack to close down a golden chance while Manotas did find the goal, but was offside receiving the ball and the goal didn’t stand just before the 90th minute.
Caleb Porter approached the game as practice for the regular season. The lineup was first choice, only Luis Diaz was missing, and the substitutions were limited to three, despite the big lead. Derrick Etienne got just over 30 minutes, playing on the right and the left. Fanendo Adi replaced Gyasi Zardes in the 77th minute - a like for like substitution. Finally, Porter gave a 10 minute cameo to Chris Cadden at right wing with Santos coming centrally for the departing Zelarayan.
It was clear that Porter wanted the team to approach this with regular season intensity. The Crew consistently played out of the back when the Dynamo applied pressure. This appeared to be a self-imposed test with lower stakes. The Crew answered with mixed responses, often struggling to break the press.
One of the big questions surrounding the 2020 season is whether Pedro Santos can maintain his excellent form from last season. He had 11 goals and 6 assists being the primary creator for the Crew. With Zelarayan coming aboard, Santos returns to being a complimentary attacking player. Those numbers likely will go down.
Tonight showed some of the other valuable attributes of the Crew winger. He’s supremely flexible. Santos tallied an assist off a corner kick after starting at his preferred right wing. After playing almost 60 minutes mostly on the right, Santos swapped over to the left after Youness Mokhtar departed for Etienne. Again Santos popped up in dangerous spots or dropped deeper to help with possession. Lastly, he moved to the middle as Cadden entered for Zelarayan. Santos isn’t a playmaker, but he can drive a team in transition.
In 90 minutes, Santos made an impact across three different midfield positions while allowing other players to play in their preferred spots. It’s a flexibility that is useful to the team as Porter can move players around to create the matchups he wants.
The MLS season and home opener! The Crew will raise the curtain on 2020 by hosting New York City FC on Sunday, March 1st. Kickoff is at 12:30 pm at MAPFRE Stadium