Columbus Crew SC went on the road on Saturday afternoon and, despite trailing the Chicago Fire 2-0 in the opening 15 minutes, returns home with a point. After giving up two goals in the first 14 minutes, the most goals conceded by the Black & Gold in a game this year, second half finishes from Fatai Alashe and Gyasi Zardes pulled the team level.
Without its top two attacking options in the midfield in Lucas Zelarayan and Darlington Nagbe, both out with injuries the Crew struggled in the first half to generate offensive chances. Etienne did get into the penalty box in the first minute but his shot spun well wide. The Fire foreshadowed what was to come five minutes later when midfielder Fabian Herbers got in behind left back Milton Valenzuela on a counter but put couldn’t put his effort on target.
In the 11th minute, Chicago became just the third team to score against the Black & Gold in 2020 courtesy of midfielder Djordje Mihailovic. Robert Beric again found space, running off the shoulder of center back Josh Willaims who didn’t run with the forward. The forward had time and space to put a cross in that was finished one-time by Mihailovic, who beat Afful to the spot in the center of the penalty box.
Three minutes later and a stunned Crew side found itself down 2-0 for the first time in 2020. On a similar play for Chicago, a quick throw-in followed by a couple of one-touch passes sprang midfielder Fabian Herbers, whose cross beat a sliding Williams and found Beric. The forward shrugged off Jonathan Mensah for another easy finish. Goalkeeper Eloy Room, who had six shutouts in seven games coming into this contest, will want that chance back as he got to the ball but allowed it to roll under him.
In the 16th minute, Columbus had its best chance up to that point, with Valenzuela getting forward. The Argentine left back’s cross connected with Pedro Santos but the playmaker’s shot was blocked by a defender.
For most of the first half, the Crew wasn’t able to generate much in the way of positive offensive attacks. That changed before the halftime whistle as the intensity began to pick up for the visitors, but the team wasn’t able to get a shot away. The best chance came when winger Derrick Etienne Jr., popping up near the D at the top of the box, chested down the ball and played wide to Luis Diaz. The Costa Rican put in a good cross but it was deflected away from the on-rushing Santos and cleared.
The second half began predictably with the Black & Gold pushing numbers forward while the Fire was content to sit back and hit the visitors on the counter.
In the 50th minute, a lofted ball into the penalty box was headed down by the end line by Zardes. Santos got on the end of the ball but his shot was saved by Chicago goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth and was put it behind. On the ensuing corner kick, Santos found Mensah at the back post but his point-blank header was right at Shuttleworth and saved.
After a few half-chances, the Crew finally pulled one goal back. From a Santos corner in the 68th minute, Zardes headed an effort on goal. The attempt glanced off the face of midfielder Fatai Alashe and into the net.
Despite Columbus looking for the equalizer, it was the Fire who had the best chances over the next several minutes, forcing Room into a few big saves. The biggest for the Crew goalkeeper came in the 86th minute when he denied what should have been a sure-goal from Przemyslaw Frankowski inside the six-yard box.
With one minute remaining before stoppage time, the Crew found the equalizer. Zardes will have to admit he benefited from a fortunate deflection on a forward pass that bounced off a defender and hit his leg. The forward, however, collected well and calmly finished to tie the game and earn the Black & Gold a point that didn’t seem in the cards early in the game.
Coming into the game, the Crew was on pace to have the best defense in MLS history, with only two goals conceded through the opening 10 matches of 2020. The Black & Gold had eight shutouts, tied for the best to start a season.
Yet it didn’t take long for the Fire to find the back of the net, then do it again. Columbus found itself down 2-0 for the first time this year due to uncharacteristic mistakes from all four defenders. While the trend is the Crew’s favor, head coach Caleb Porter will want to make sure these errors don’t happen again. Because it won’t be every game that the Black & Gold can dig out of 2-0 holes.
In a fair world. Zardes would have walked out of Solider Field with two more goals on the season. The Crew forward’s header looked destined for the back of the net before Alashe inadvertently deflected it home. Zardes then was in the right place at the right time and did well to finish for the tying goal. This now gives Zardes eight goals in 2020, one behind Los Angeles Football Club’s Diego Rossi.
Zardes, being the teammate he is, won’t mind Alashe getting credit for the team’s first goal, but he could have been tied atop the MLS Golden Boot race.
MLS announced Phase Two of the league’s return to play this week. This means we know what comes next for Columbus.
The Crew will welcome Nashville SC to MAPFRE Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 19 for the first ever meeting between the two clubs. The game is scheduled to kick off at 7:30 p.m. ET.