Once the whistle blew, it was soccer. Even if it was taking place on what looked to be a practice field in suburban Orlando, it was soccer. And just like recent matchups between Columbus Crew SC and FC Cincinnati, the Black & Gold offense found success against in-state rivals as Columbus rolled to a 4-0 opening-game win in the MLS is Back Tournament.
The game started wide open. Cincinnati stretched the field and looked to play direct and at pace. The Crew struggled with the speed of play and openness of the game, giving up an early Kekuta Manneh chance in the eighth minute
Columbus finally found its footing a quarter hour into the game. FC Cincy’s high-octane style misfired and failed to pressure the Crew backline and gave the Black & Gold offense a chance to build possession. This nearly paid off a just past the half way point of the half in the 24th minute after forward Gyasi Zardes fed midfielder Lucas Zelarayan in the penalty box. The Argentine playmaker cut in, appeared to get clipped and went down. The referee and video review ruled no penalty.
Zelarayan left no doubt when he opened the scoring just minutes later with a brilliant free kick. In transition, Zelarayan took the ball into space, cut back and was taken down by a hard Frankie Amaya foul. From a tight angle, the Crew’s multi-million dollar signing drove a free kick around the wall and clipped the post where FC Cincy goalkeeper Przemyslaw Tyton couldn’t reach.
With the team from down south reeling, Columbus quickly took advantage to double the lead. Moving the ball along the backline, Harrison Afful found the Crew’s midfield metronome, Darlington Nagbe, with a square pass. He quickly transitioned through the midfield and slipped a pass to Youness Mokhtar. Mokhtar slid a pass to a wide open Zardes and the striker took a touch and easily finished the one-on-one attempt to make it 2-0 in the 30th minute.
Cincinnati did create a nervous moment late in stoppage time after Haris Medunjanin drove a long diagonal to Manneh. The speedy winger tracked down the ball outside the penalty box, just ahead of Eloy Room’s attempt at sweeping the danger. Room was able to pressure Manneh into a turnover as the defense cleared the danger.
Columbus picked up where the team left off as the second half kicked off. The Crew kept the ball early in the half, probing the backline. Pushing forward, Afful thrusted the ball to Zardes who then linked up with Zelarayan in the mid third. Under no pressure, the Designated Player split the defense with a driven cross and found the run of Zardes. The forrwarrd drove it home from short range in the 49th minute. The goal stood after a long video review check to officially make it 3-0.
Cincinnati’s token resistance collapsed for the next 10 minutes. The game slowed down in the Orlando humidity, but the FC Cincy defense struggled to keep pace.
The Black & Gold moved the ball around at will. Aboubacar Keita, Hector Jimenez, Jonathan Mensah, Darlington Nagbe, Mokhtar, Jimenez, Nagbe, Artur, Mensah, Afful, Zelarayan, and Jimenez touched the ball before Mokhar finished the move with a shot from the right side of the penalty area to extend the lead to 4-0 in the 60th minute.
Columbus was happy to kill off the game while FC Cincinnati tried to grab a consolation goal in the final minutes. Derrick Etienne uncorked a hopeful shot in the 74th minute while Allan Cruz’s shot from distance was blocked in the 88th. That was the only real action of the final 30 minutes of the game as the heat, humidity and goals sapped the energy from the game.
Big Time Goals
Gyasi Zardes scored his 34th and 35th goals in black and gold. Zardes is now tied for seventh place on the Crew’s all time goals list and is three away from. Justin Meram’s Crew total is 38 in sixth place. The four-goal win is the biggest since the regular season finale in 2015 when Jack McInerney and Aaron Schoenfield showed up on the scoresheet in the 5-0 win against D.C. United on Oct. 25.
The Crew were without Pedro Santos, Milton Valenzuela, Waylon Francis and Fanendo Adi on the evening. Caleb Porter said that the team struggleed with soft tissue injuries. The lack of warmup games and limited training has taken a toll. Adding to the injury woes, Vito Wormgoor suffered an ankle injury in the 12th minute that forced an early substitution. He ultimately had to be carted from the playing site after being helped off the field. Mensah stayed down for a few minutes after he missed a clearance and kicked Yuya Kubo, but he was able to stay in the game. The tight timeframes means that some players will be playing quite a few minutes with heightened injury risks. In very good news, the unidentified player stricken by COVID-19 has recovered.
Porter believes this is a deep Crew team. He had a chance to empty the bench early with the big lead. After the forced change of Wormgoor in the first half, Porter brought in Derrick Etienne for Zelarayan and Chris Cadden for Luis Diaz just after the fourth goal. With 15 minutes remaining, he swapped out his midfield bringing in Sebastian Berhalter and Aidan Morris for Nagbe and Artur.
Columbus moves to the top of the Group E with the big win. The Crew have a chance to rest for a couple days before playing a Thursday 10:30 p.m. ET game against the New York Red Bulls. Both teams started the tournament with a win. The second game gives each team a chance to seize control of the group.