After a commanding first half performance, Columbus Crew SC grinded out a 2-1 win against the visiting Minnesota United at MAPFRE Stadium Wednesday night. Lucas Zelarayan scored in the opening 45 minutes and Pedro Santos added a second half tally for the team’s seventh win at home on the season.
After a brief feeling out period, the visitors ceded possession to the Crew early in the match. Columbus could only turn the possession into one shot, a 10th minute Santos effort from a Harrison Afful cross.
A lengthy delay due to an injury to Fatai Alashe that led to Sebastian Berhalter entering the match couldn’t stop the early momentum for the Black & Gold. The team continued to push for the advantage, creating another quality chance in the 24th minute. Afful slipped in a through ball that Luis Diaz ran on to. The Costa Rican winger bent a cross through the six-yard box, just missing Gyasi Zardes.
Columbus didn’t have to wait long for the breakthrough, however. The Crew cycled possession in the midfield before Josh Williams found Santos in the pocket. The Portuguese winger drifted inside and sent a chipped pass centrally. Zelarayan met the cross and powered a header into the net to give the Black & Gold a 1-0 lead in the 31st minute.
Minnesota created a flurry around Eloy Room’s goal in the 38th minute, but little came of the attack as the visitors failed to create a shot, only causing Room to parry a dangerous Romain Métanire cross.
Twice, the Crew nearly grabbed a second just before halftime in the run of play and another from the penalty spot. In the 44th minute, Milton Valenzuela smoothly clipped a one-time pass for Santos to run onto. The winger crossed the ball only to have Diaz’s shot blocked over the bar. On the ensuing corner, Valenzuela’s cross nearly snuck in, but Loons’ goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair parried the ball away.
In stoppage time, Artur took recycled possession from midfield and sent in a long pass into the final third. Diaz, causing problems once again, drew a penalty kick, running onto the ball and forcing Chase Gaspar to foul in recovery. Zelarayan, though, pushed the ball over the bar after a stutter step run-up.
Minnesota found more of the ball after the break, but the Crew aggressively hounded the Loons, forcing most of their possession into the midfield third. It was a prime example of the defensive effort that has earned Columbus the best record on that side of the ball in MLS.
The Crew created another couple chances just before the 60th minute mark. Santos drove a free kick at the Loons goal, but St. Clair parried the ball over the bar. The better chance came a minute later after Santos created space and slipped in a cross that Zardes pushed just wide.
Zelarayan was the next Crew player to nearly tally the elusive second goal. Marked by two Minnesota players, he cut and freed himself for a right-footed shot from 20 yards out. His curling effort rang the post and the rebound fell to Diaz, but his shot was parried over by St. Clair to keep the game at 1-0 in the 65th minute.
Santos finally grabbed that second goal with a play of individual brilliance. The winger turned around Métanire and ripped a shot from a tight angle that St. Clair could only push into the top of the net for the 2-0 lead in the 70th minute.
Diaz gave the Loons a perfect chance to grab a comeback goal just a couple of minutes later. After a stellar defensive recovery, Diaz kept retreating and ended up on his on end line. He tried to dribble out but was dispossessed in the defensive third. Robin Lod’s shot from four yards out was blocked by Valenzuela and then parried by Room.
Minnesota pressed to get back into the game. United enjoyed more possession and finally broke the Crew’s home shutout streak in the 88th minute. Gaspar bent in a right-sided cross that Lod put home from six yards with a right-footed shot.
The Crew narrowly avoided tying the game as the visitors throught they grabbed an equalizer in the third minute of stoppage, but there was an immediate whistle and the linesman raised the flag. The video assistant did not prompt a full check, the call stood and Columbus escaped with another home win.
The Crew has shown the team can win a lot of ways in 2020. The defense has been historic in its performance, but the team is a true leading MLS Cup contender with a high powered offense. The return of Zelerayan helped the team find balance on offense. Santos is in rich form and had an outstanding game. Diaz was a menace on the right with his speed. And Zardes is Zardes; even when he’s not scoring, he’s always moving and working.
As Darlington Nagbe looks to return in October, the Crew will add another dangerous attacking piece back to a team that fired in 15 shots on the night.
The Crew had six straight home shutouts to start 2020 and nearly had a seventh. It was 628 minutes of scoreless soccer at MAPFRE Stadium, but the defense cracked in the 88th minute and nearly broke five minutes later.
This is a great defense. The group has given up five goals in 13 games. However, there are moments where that relentless focus wains and teams can take advantage, like Chicago did in a rough 10 minutes earlier in September and similar to what the Loons nearly did tonight.
With the win, the Crew is now 9-1-3 on the season and has 30 points. The Black & Gold are five points clear of Toronto FC, the Philadelphia United and Orlando City in the Eastern Conference standings. Now it’s on to the third game in nine days for the Crew. The team hits the road to face Toronto on Rentschler Field in Hartford, Connecticut on Sunday night at 7:30 PM.