The second Hell is Real matchup of 2020 lacked the sizzle of the first matchup at the MLS is Back Tournament over a month ago as the Columbus Crew SC offensive slump continued in the face of a fierce rearguard action while the defense held fast against the punchless FC Cincinnati offense. Cincinnati appeared happy to have the point from the 0-0 tie, while Columbus will see this as points dropped.
The Black & Gold welcomed back a trio from the injury list as playmaking Argentine Lucas Zelarayan, winger Youness Mokhtar and goalkeeper Eloy Room returned to the lineup.
Columbus nearly opened the scoring at the 10-minute mark with a quick transition. Zelarayan pushed the ball forward before getting clipped with a hard foul. The ball fell to fullback Harrison Afful who found a breaking Mokhtar. FC Cincy keeper Przemyslaw Tyton rushed out and forced a looping shot from 35 yards out that drifted wide.
Cincinnati nearly struck six minutes later after getting a dead ball chance following Yuya Kubo drawing a foul. Siem de Jong drove in a shot bending toward the upper corner of the Crew goal from 25 yards that forced a full-stretch save from Room to keep the game scoreless.
The home side started the game with several crunching tackles. FC Cincinnati committed five fouls and picked up two yellow cards in the first 15 minutes with Maikel van der Werff and Joe Gyau going into the book early.
After the initial fireworks, play slowed down. Cincinnati settled into a defensive posture and the Crew kept the ball but struggled to create any danger. The six first half shots between the teams all came within the first 20 minutes. The teams each recorded three apiece. Columbus put two headers on target, but they were saved easily by Tyton.
Both teams came out refreshed after the break and the chances came fast after the quiet end to the first half.
Zelarayan nearly put the Crew up early in the second 45 minutes. He shimmied free on the left side and curled a right-footed shot on the outside of the left post in the 51st minute. The shot would have tested Tyton but went harmlessly into the side net.
Cincinnati had a better chance just minutes later with a De Jong direct kick in the 53rd minute. The low driving shot was tipped by Afful and Room had to acrobatically push it over the bar.
The Black & Gold’s best chance came on a transition that played to the team’s strengths, transitioning at speed. Center back Josh Williams linked up with Darlington Nagbe. The midfielder held the ball and then slipped a pass to Zardes. Bearing down on goal, he tried to put a ball across goal, but the pass was too strong and skipped past a wide-open Pedro Santos.
Much like the first half, the fireworks came early. The Crew only had four shots in the second half as the home side bunkered in. The only offense from FC Cincinnati was a long-distance Kubo shot to test Room and a late van der Werff half chance from a long kick into the penalty box.
Only the Crew looked interested in winning, but neither side was able to truly challenge the opposing keeper.
Off the injury list
The Crew got 55 minutes out of Mokhtar and 67 minutes from Zelarayan in their return from injury. Both looked rusty after coming back from about a month off. Mokhtar was mostly anonymous on the left wing before getting lifted for Derrick Etienne Jr. Zelarayan flashed a few bits of skill but didn’t look fluid controlling the offense before Fatai Alashe made his Crew debut as his replacement.
The bigger picture is that these players are getting fit and up to game speed as Columbus approaches the stretch run of the Phase 1 games. With the Philadelphia Union, Cincinnati and a trip to Chicago on the schedule in the first 12 days of the month, the schedule gets more congested.
Lack of offense
After an explosive offense at MLS is Back, the Crew has sputtered of late. Despite the three goals scored against the Fire in the first game of the restart, the Black & Gold didn’t create as much as normal. The team was then shutout for the first time this season in the 1-0 loss to New York City FC on Monday. Cincinnati was able to keep Columbus off the board again, even with Zelarayan and Mokhtar back.
Columbus moves to 5-1-2 on the year. The Crew host the Philadelphia Union on Wednesday evening at MAPFRE Stadium. The game will kick off at 7:30 p.m. ET The Union soundly beat D.C. United at home to move to 4-1-3 on the year. A Hell is Real repeat looms next Sunday.