Columbus Crew SC closed out the 14th night of the MLS is Back Tournament just like it had its previous two group stage matches, with a win. A goal by Youness Mokhtar in the 18th minute proved enough to lift the Black & Gold over Atlanta United by a 1-0 scoreline. The victory clinched first place in Group E for Columbus, who has a date with the runners up in Group D for the first game of the knockout round.
The Black & Gold provided a different attacking approach on Tuesday night than in previous games. The Crew attack was more possession-oriented than was initially seen against FC Cincinnati and New York Red Bulls and that led to a slower than usual start.
Columbus didn’t get its first serious scoring threat until the ninth minute of the match. Midfielder Luis Diaz wiggled free of the Five Stripes’ defense to create a one-on-one opportunity against opposing goalkeeper Brad Guzan. Diaz let go of a shot but couldn’t put it on frame and pose a serious threat to the Atlanta goalkeeper.
Just three minutes later, Mokhtar got behind the Atlanta defense, but United recovered and cleared the ball to thwart the scoring opportunity.
That wouldn’t be the last chance Mokhtar would have in the opening half.
In the 18th minute, a passing combination consisting of 19 passes between Crew players led to outside back Milton Valenzuela making a dangerous dribble down the left hand side. The Argentine defender linked up with Mokhtar who buried his one-time shot into the back of the Five Stripes’ net to claim a 1-0 lead.
Atlanta attempted to respond and earned several free kick opportunities throughout the first half. The best chance for the Five Stripes came in the 29th minute as goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell made a diving save to his left to deny Ezequiel Barco an equalizer.
United came to life, relatively, in the second half, dominating possession. Head coach Frank De Boer made a few key moves for his team, including moving Pity Martinez to the center of the park. These moves paid dividends as Atlanta’s attack looked dangerous but couldn’t seriously challenge Tarbell.
Martinez had a quality opportunity in the 49th minute as his shot from the top of the box challenged Tarbell, who bobbled the effort but collected it to make a save. The Black & Gold keeper was called into action again in the 58th minute, making a stop on Emerson Hyndman after a sloppy turnover.
In the 60th minute, the Crew had an opportunity to extend the lead but couldn’t put the finishing touch on the opportunity. Hector Jimenez found forward Gyasi Zardes in the penalty box, who laid it off to Etienne. The winger, however, couldn’t get a quality shot off.
Much of the game was contested in the Crew defensive half or at midfield throughout most of the second half. United’s best chance came in the 89th minute, as three Five Stripes attackers were on the back post off a set piece opportunity but Tarbell came up big to deny them at point-blank range.
The stingy Columbus defense stood tall and powered the Black & Gold to a 1-0 victory over Atlanta.
Following an injury to Eloy Room during the win against the New York Red Bulls, many weren’t sure what to make of his replacement. The 26-year-old Tarbell hadn’t made a start since 2018 but answered the challenge brilliantly.
He made four saves in his Crew debut, including a point-blank denial in the 89th minute. Tarbell proved a serviceable player who can be called upon when needed.
Oh my Mokhtar
Tuesday’s victory against Atlanta was a Jekyll and Hyde performance for the Dutch midfielder. He tallied his second goal of the tournament in the 18th minute but didn’t finish the first half due to injury.
It’s a tough break for the midfielder who has been in great form for Columbus throughout the tournament. He performed well during the 2019 season but ultimately ran out of games as the Crew couldn’t clinch a playoff spot. Now he’s hitting his stride in 2020 but could miss an undetermined amount of time as he rehabs from a potential injury.
Columbus waits to see who the team’s competition will be in the knockout round. The Black & Gold will face the runner’s up in Group D.