Columbus Crew SC got back to winning ways with a 1-0 win against the Philadelphia Union on a balmy, fanless MAPFRE Stadium. Lucas Zelarayan’s second half strike was the difference in the defensive battle between two teams toward the top of Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference.
The early moments of the game were a defensive struggle. The visiting Union aggressively pressured the Crew, harrying every pass. Columbus was clearly uncomfortable early and unable to connect passes cleanly. Philadelphia had the best chance during the incipient period of the game, a long-range Alejandro Bedoya shot that forced an Eloy Room save.
Slowly, the Crew settled into a solid string of possession but was unable to create any real pressure on Andre Blake’s goal. Milton Valenzuela came late into the box in the 17th minute after a Pedro Santos cutback cross. The left back cut the ball twice, but his shot was ultimately blocked for a corner. Center back Jonathan Mensah had a soft header easily saved on the ensuing set piece.
The Union was able to break the pressure and get a spell of possession and create several more dangerous chances just past the midway point of the first half. Midfielder Brenden Aaronson and forward Kacper Przybylko peppered Room’s goal in quick succession in the 26th minute, but the shots were blocked with an aggressive defensive rearguard. The most impressive was Darlington Nagbe’s goalmouth save of Mark McKenzie’s shot.
Columbus struggled to clear a corner kick in the 34th minute and Bedoya, Sergio Santos and Aaronson fired in three shots from inside the six-yard box within seconds. The Black & Gold defense was up to the task to block the shots before they got to Room’s goal.
The Crew finally tested Blake’s goal as the half wound on with the frontline finally clicking in the 39th minute for an attack with Youness Mokhtar pushing the ball through the midfield and finding Gyasi Zardes. The forward then switched fields and found Zelarayan. The playmaker fired a knuckling shot that forced Blake into a punching save. The Crew was unable to turn the rebound into anything.
Columbus attacked relentlessly to open the second half with Zardes and Santos getting off shots inside the 18-yard box in the opening minutes. The Black & Gold attack showed more fluency coming out of the locker room than the entire first half.
After a bright start to the second half, the Crew finally broke through in the 56th minute through a singular long-range strike from Zelarayan. After a line-breaking pass from Jonathan, Zelarayan worked a triangle with Artur and Santos before getting the ball back and launching a shot from 25 yards out that just tipped McKenzie’s thigh and lofted over a helpless Blake.
The Crew nearly grabbed a second just over a minute later as Zelarayan found space in the 18-yard box before the defense collapsed and he lost the ball just before he could fire a shot at Blake.
Philadelphia then nearly tied the game in the 68th minute after a poor series of defensive moves by Mokhtar and Valenzuela allowed Santos a free look at Room’s goal from 12 yards out. The forward pushed his shot over the crocssbar instead of swinging a pass over to a wide-open Przybylko for an easy goal.
The Union continued to pile on the pressure, bringing on attacking subs Ilsinho and Andrew Wooten in an attempt to change the game. After 12 shots in the first half, Philadelphia was only able to launch two shots at the Crew goal. Neither truly tested Room.
Scoreless streak snapped
The Crew attack has been very sharp in 2020 but struggled as Zelarayan and Mokhtar were forced out of the lineup and defenses played deeper. Columbus went the final 10 minutes of the game against the Chicago Fire without a goal and then went scoreless in two straight games, the loss to New York City FC and the tie again FC Cincinnati, plus the first 54 minutes against the Union. It was a total of 244 minutes that the Crew was blanked.
It’s clear that the attack is stunted without Zelarayan when defenses play compact. Columbus struggled to break down the Union defense, but it was clear that Zelarayan was comfortable and effective in those tight spaces in a way that no other player on the team is.
Scoreless streak continues
On the defensive side of the ball, the Crew has two consecutive shutouts after blanking the Union. It’s the seventh shutout in nine games for Columbus. This defense has allowed two goals all season. The new streak is up to 220 minutes.
The Black & Gold benefited from some continuity as the team started the same backline for the second straight game with Room playing in front of Harrison Afful, Jonathan, Josh Williams and Valenzuela with Nagbe and Artur in midfield. The defense was a whole team effort, as it was clear that the team pressed through the front with Zardes pushing the initial Union players and Fanendo Adi’s contributions laid more in winning 50-50 headers than adding a late insurance goal.
Columbus now moves to 6-1-2 on the year and has 20 points. The team moved back into first place in the Eastern Conference after nine games, two points ahead of Toronto FC. The Crew has another game on short rest, as the third edition of Hell is Real in 2020 is on Sunday evening at 7:30 p.m. ET. at MAPFRE Stadium. The Black & Gold have one win and a tie against FC Cincinnati this season.