It was Columbus Crew SC that was the latest team to bow out of the MLS is Back Tournament, falling to Minnesota United on penalties 5-3, after drawing 1-1 on Tuesday night in Orlando, Florida. The loss was the Black & Gold’s first of the season after a five-match unbeaten run and the wait for Caleb Porter’s first piece of silverware in central Ohio continues.
The Black & Gold saw themselves yet again ease into the game and take control of possession in the opening period. Minnesota was successfully able to make life difficult for Crew midfielder Darlington Nagbe, allowing for early attempts down the flanks for Ethan Finlay and Roman Metanaire.
The game was fairly even at the start as each side was only able to register one shot apiece during the opening 15 minutes. The Crew had its first solid chance of the game in the 16th minute when defender Jonathan Mensah had a header from a corner barely sail over United’s crossbar.
Moments later, Minnesota was able to break the deadlock for a 1-0 advantage from a corner of its own when a failed clearance from Gyasi Zardes led to a shot past Andrew Tarbell by United’s Robin Lod. It was Minnesota’s sixth goal of the season coming from set pieces.
For the Black & Gold, it was their first goal conceded in both the MLS is Back Tournament and in 299 minutes of open play, the last one coming from Seattle Sounders’ Raul Ruidiaz on March 7.
Going into the game’s first hydration break, Columbus dominated possession controlling 67 percent of the ball but was unable to create dangerous chances in Minnesota’s final third. The Loons were more than happy with sitting back and allowing the Black & Gold to keep control of the possession battle to see out the first half.
Minnesota forced a majority of the Crew’s early chances to come from wide positions, forcing the team to attempt multiple failed crosses to Zardes and a notable shot from distance in the 37th minute from Luis Diaz that was comfortably saved after a ball won at midfield and quick counterattack jumpstarted by Nagbe.
The Black & Gold saw danger again in the 36th minute when Finlay played a low-driven cross into Lod and, if not brilliantly closed down by Harrison Afful, would have seen Columbus trail 2-0 nearing the second half.
Porter made a change to begin the second half, bringing on Derrick Etienne Jr. for Luis Diaz, who was unable to make his presence known in the first half with only five touches.
The tactics of Adrian Heath and United continued to pay dividends, sitting back while not allowing the Black & Gold to play passes through the middle. While it allowed for the fullbacks to overload the channels in wide positions, Columbus was unable to find an end product from its efforts.
The Crew nearly allowed Minnesota to double its lead in the 53rd minute from yet another set piece, as a corner from United headed on goal was dealt with by one hand from a diving Tarbell, keeping the Black & Gold in the game.
Chances continued to come from the Loons, although they were few and far in between. Minnesota had a decent chance in front of goal in the 65th minute that was thwarted well by center back Aboubacar Keita.
Nearing the closing stages, Columbus had a handful of corners and crosses that were handled with ease from United’s point of view. The most notable was a cross from Chris Cadden that found Zardes in the 77th minute, who was unable to redirect it on target.
It wasn’t even two minutes later when Zardes was able to convert a penalty after a foul in the penalty box near the touchline on Etienne. The shot was saved by United goalkeeper Tyler Miller but rebounded back into the path of the Crew striker who was able to tap in for the equalizer. It was the forward’s fifth goal in as many games in the 2020 season.
The equalizer allowed for the game to open up as it was back and forth heading into the penalty shootout, where a Cadden miss allowed for Minnesota to take the victory 5-3 after a flawless showing from the spot.
While Columbus is set on a returning flight home, it will be United who advances to the quarterfinals to face San Jose Earthquakes.
Set pieces a problem?
After the defense showed so much promise through five games of the 2020 season, it appeared that a weakness of the team’s game was discovered through their inability to defend set pieces.
The first goal conceded of the tournament was from a United corner, resulting in a failed clearance by Zardes. While the play was merely a mistake, it almost cost the Black & Gold the game in the second half when another corner was nearly finished by United. It will need to be a point of emphasis for Porter heading into the latter portion of the season for his side.
To United’s credit, however, the team has shown an uncanny ability for converting set pieces as the team’s lone goal on the night was its sixth out of 13 from those positions on the season.
A blessing in disguise
Although a disappointing loss knocked the Black & Gold out of the MLS is Back Tournament, they may have just done themselves a favor moving into the latter stage of the season. After injuries to key starters Eloy Room, Youness Mokhtar and Vito Wormgoor, the Crew can now get back to Columbus and get healthy before the remainder of the regular season gets back underway, whenever that may be.
A major takeaway for the Crew was going three for three in its first three games, taking nine points home with that will be allotted to the regular season point total and all the while sitting on top of the Eastern Conference and leading the league in the race for the 2020 Supporter’s Shield.
This will be a chance for the Black & Gold to get back home to their families, rest, reset and regroup to make a legitimate push for a far more important prize this season.