Columbus Crew SC remains unbeaten on the MLS season with a 3-0 win against the Chicago Fire on Thursday night. Derrick Ettiene Jr., Darlington Nagbe and Gyasi Zardes powered the Crew attack while the defense held strong for the fourth straight regular season shutout.
The Crew opened the game playing their aggressive possession-based attacking style, despite missing playmaker Lucas Zelarayan and winger Youness Mokhtar in the attack. Columbus switched the ball often, trying to leverage the speed of Ettiene on the left side and Luis Diaz on the right, but wasn’t able to create real chances on the Chicago goal
Despite being on the back foot early, the Fire had the first good opportunity of the game on a counter attack. Polish winger Przemyslaw Frankowski got on the end of a long pass and found space on the right side of the Black & Gold penalty box. He drove a right-footed shot past a sliding Milton Valenzuela and beyond the far side of the Crew goal post in the 17th minute.
Columbus did break the deadlock just minutes later. Josh Williams sent a driving pass through the Fire midfield and down the left side. Valenzuela settled over the ball and clipped a cut-back cross to Etienne in the middle of the penalty box. His one-time right-footed shot slipped past Bobby Shuttlesworth’s dive and settled in the side of the net.
After the goal, the game opened up. Both teams upped the tempo but struggled to string passes together or threaten the goal. The Crew couldn’t get into the Chicago final third while the Fire was forced to shoot from distance.
Chicago found another good chance in the 35th minute, coming from a high-pressure defense. Pressing the outlet pass, Djordje Mihailovic intercepted the ball just above the 18-yard box and it fell to Ignacio Aliseda. His shot was deflected by Jonathan Mensah and goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell, deputizing for the injured Eloy Room, could only watch as the ball dribbled past the post. The Fire was unable to make the ensuing corner kick count.
The game continued to stretch out and Columbus nearly took advantage on the counter in the 39th minute. Williams pinged a driving clearance to Pedro Santos. The Portuguese playmaker turned and sent a ball wide left to Etienne in space. As Zardes pulled the defense toward the middle, Etienne had space to pick his next move and sent a diagonal ball through the Fire defense to Diaz on the right. The Costa Rican winger took a touch and fired a shot that forced a kick save from Shuttlesworth to keep the game at 1-0.
Diaz caused more problems just before halftime. After another long outlet from the defense, Santos and Zardes linked up with the forward sending the ball forward to Diaz. The winger used his speed to get past Miguel Ángel Navarro with the Fire winger forced to cut him down in the penalty box to earn an attempt from the spot. Zardes miss the penalty kick attempt, sending his shot well over the bar.
The Fire started the second half on the front foot, playing quickly through the Crew high press. The initial success on the ball led to a great chance from Mihailovic in the 53rd minute. The Fire playmaker threaded a shot through Harrison Afful’s legs and forced a reaction save from Tarbell to keep the game at 1-0.
With mounting Fire pressure, head coach Caleb Porter attempted to change the game with a tactical substitution in the 66th minute. Rookie Sebastian Berhalter replaced Diaz and sent Santos to the wing. This was a clear effort to provide more defensive balance in the middle of the field after Chicago enjoyed a significant advantage going through that area since the halftime break. The move worked as the Fire attack ran out of steam.
What happened next bore no relation to the midsummer slog of a game of the previous 80 minutes. Darlington Nagbe magic happened. In a game with no flow, Nagbe took matters into his own hands with a singular effort. With the ball scudding around in the Fire defensive third, Nagbe got a moment of space, lifted the ball to himself and unleashed a 25-yard volley. The shot kissed off the left upright and landed in the back of the net.
The Crew then added a third goal in the 87th minute with Nagbe starting the move with a savvy dribble then pass wide to Santos. The Portuguese took a touch and bent a cross onto the path of Zardes. It was an easy finish and finished the game.
The Crew defense recorded another shut out and hasn’t given up a regular season goal since the second game of the season, in March, in Seattle. The group finished out the final 11 minutes of the Sounders game without giving up a goal, then blanked FC Cincinnati, New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United in the MLS is Back Tournament group stage games.
It also has starred a rotating cast of characters. Afful and Mensah are the only stalwarts in the game. Valenzuela was missing during parts of the MLS is Back Tournament. Vito Wormgoor went down with an injury and Josh Williams stepped in.
Next Man Up
The Crew was missing Zelarayan, Mokhtar and Room, but it didn’t matter ultimately. The offense struggled at times as Santos was forced to move centrally as the creator. He’s miscast in that role and looked best when the game opened up and he had room to run at the defense. However, the Crew was able to grind out a result with Etienne especially causing problems on the left side.
Even new addition Emmanuel Boateng was able to get 10 minutes in a Black & Gold shirt. The depth that Porter and the front office have collected was fully on display.
The Crew move to 5-0-1 and 16 points on the season. The Black & Gold are in first place in the Eastern Conference and lead the Supporters’ Shield standings. Columbus has short rest and travels to play New York City FC on Monday night at 7 p.m. ET at Red Bull Arena. NYCFC is 1-5-0 on the year, including a 1-0 loss against the Red Bulls on Thursday.