Columbus Crew SC recorded another tight win on Saturday night, defeating visiting Nashville SC 2-0 on a Pedro Santos goal and late Gyasi Zardes insurance finish. This was the Crew’s first-ever meeting with the Nashville expansion side and, it stands to reason, the first win.
The first 20 minutes of the game were nearly devoid of attacking excitement. Both teams defended aggressively. The result was a lack of flow as fouls and missed passes were far more common than consistent offense.
Columbus nearly created an early chance when Youness Mokhtar found fellow winger Luis Diaz as he broke past the Nashville backline in the seventh minute, but his chance was stopped by Joe Willis. After the save, the play was called offside in an extremely late call.
Little more happened until the Crew had a great chance in the 23rd minute as the home side finally had the ball in the final third. After a long switch to fullback Harrison Afful and cross to his opposite number Milton Valenzuela, the Argentine left back sent in a bending ball that nearly found Zardes. Diaz tracked down the ball, cut into open space and zipped a centering pass back to Zardes. The one-touch redirect shot blazed over the bar.
Nashville next came closest in breaking the scoreless deadlock in the 28th minute. After a Santos foul, playmaker Hany Mukhtar sent in a long free kick that forced an awkward Eloy Room punch to Anabal Godoy. His shot forced a goal line save from center back Jonathan Mensah as Room recovered his position. Dave Romney then launched a second shot that was also blocked. The Crew finally cleared the danger without giving up an opening goal.
Columbus settled into its game after the flurry of chances from the visitors. The Black & Gold found it easier to break through the initial defensive block and progress into the attacking zone.
The best example happened in the 41st minute. Santos slipped a line-breaking pass to Diaz. The speedy winger’s cross was too heavy to connect with Zardes for an easy chance, but the Crew continued the attack. Eventually, Valenzuela ended up with a 20-yard shot from an angle and slid his attempt high and wide.
Columbus broke through right after the halftime break on strong defense. Zardes pressed Alistair Johnston along the sideline deep in the Nashville end. The forward dispossessed the right back and dribbled into the Nashville 18-yard box. He played the ball back to Santos centrally ad the Portuguese attacker cut the ball left and sent a curling shot past Willis and into the back of the net to give Columbus the 1-0 lead in the 50th minute.
The Crew nearly created a second off another great defensive effort in the 60th minute. Santos intercepted a pass in the Nashville defensive end. Zardes picked up the loose ball and started dribbling at the heart of the defense. Santos made a drifting run left to draw the defense, but Zardes held the ball and found Diaz at full sprint on the right. His shot was deflected out by Dax McCarty, who originally lost the ball.
Nashville nearly tied the game immediately following the Crew chance. Dominique Badji came down the left side of the Crew attack. He slipped in an excellent grounded cross and Alex Muyl’s one-time shot from 11 yards was directly at Room.
The game went into another lull after the flurry of chances around the 60th minute. The Crew struggled to possess the ball and were content to sit in the team’s stout mid-block defense. Nashville found it challenging to break down the Black & Gold defense. The visitor’s attack consisted of wide crosses to Badji. The forward headed three shots, none on target.
Nashville continued to press to equalize, pushing numbers forward. This gave the Crew a chance to counter in stoppage time. Jonathan headed a clearance to Lucas Zelarayan, returning in a substitute appearance. The Argentine playmaker pushed into the Nashville half of the field with Santos, Zardes and Artur attacking with him. He pushed the ball wide right to Artur. His centering pass found Zardes, who pirouetted and back-healed the ball into the net for his ninth goal of the season.
Caleb Porter is very clear that the Crew’s excellent defensive record is a team effort. It’s not down to the goalkeeper or backline. Porter is clear that the entire team works to keep the chances down. It can be hard to see the tracking that Zardes or Santos does and how that helps the team’s defense, but the attackers had a chance to let their defensive work shine.
Zardes and Santos both had defensive plays that set up great chances. Zardes created the goal early in the second half, dispossessing a stranded defender. The aggressive press from Santos led to the blocked pass and another great chance. Without Zelarayan, Columbus can use these transition chances to augment the offense.
The Crew has missed what Zelarayan can create as the team’s playmaker. He’s struggled with a series of injuries that have kept him out of the lineup for the past two games and four games total during the abbreviated 2020 season. His quality is clear, as evidenced by his four goals and two assists in the seven games he has played.
As Phase Two starts, and another month and a half left in the season, the Crew attack can use a healthy Zelarayan. No one else on the team can create chances for himself and others the way he can - as evidenced in his role in the second goal.
With the win, Columbus moves to 8-1-3 and 27 points on the year. They are still the Supporters Shield front runners. The Crew are back in action quickly, hosting Minnesota United on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. ET.