The first fans to take in a game at MAPFRE Stadium were rewarded with a win as Columbus Crew SC breezed past FC Cincinnati 3-0 in the third 2020 edition of Hell is Real. The win was powered by a second half brace by Gyasi Zardes and a goal from Pedro Santos.
It was FC Cincinnati that had the first real chance of the game in the third minute. Winger Youness Mokhtar was pressed into a turnover by Joe Gyau and the visitors pushed upfield. Eventually, the ball found Yuya Kubo whose centering pass just missed the foot of Jurgen Locadia.
Darlington Nagbe, pressed into action as the No. 10 playmaker, caused problems early on the dribble. He suffered two fouls in the final third that lead to dead ball chances. Mokhtar then sent free kicks over the end line, ending two set-piece chances.
The Crew continued to pressure FC Cincy, but was unable to turn time with the ball into a shot until Fatai Alashe got free outside the 18-yard box and bent a shot that was deflected for a corner. Santos sent the corner kick service too deep and another chance ended without a goal attempt.
Columbus’ best chance of the early dominance came in the 13th minute. After a big switch from Milton Valenzuela, Santos was able to drive into the 18-yard box and slip the ball into Mokhtar. His shot was deflected by Matthew Deplagne. Alashe sent the long-range rebound well wide. Play resumed after a Video Assistant Review determined there was no infraction.
Columbus continued to attack, holding 56 percent possession, a number that didn’t fully capture the dominance the Crew enjoyed on the ball. Nagbe especially bedeviled FC Cincy defenders as he bounced into pockets of space and dribbled at the backline. The impromptu playmaker earned four fouls and drew a yellow card on Frankie Amaya for team wide persistent infringement.
The Crew pressure turned into seven first half chances. None of them tested goalkeeper Przemyslaw Tyton with the visitors often putting five along the backline to keep the game scoreless at the break.
It wasn’t an immediate change after halftime despitee the Crew camping in the Cincinnati end of the field. Nagbe created his own shot after dribbling into the heart of the FC Cincy defense. Tyton saved the 48th minute chance easily.
The breakthrough came from halftime substitute Luis Diaz. The speedy Costa Rican blew past the FC Cincinnati left back and sent in a driven low cross that slipped by Nagbe and fell to Santos. He took the right-footed shot cleanly and put the home side ahead. sending the fans in attendance into rapturous cheers.
Columbus continued to hold the ball as FC Cincy struggled to break out of the home side’s stifling defense. It was that stifling team defense that was rewarded with the second Crew goal. Valenzuela and 61st minute substitute Zardes forced an enplane turnover instead of ceding a free kick. Within 30 seconds, Cincinnati was down 2-0.
With the ball deep in the FC Cincy end, Zardes found Nagbe, who swung it to Santos. The Portuguese winger drove a low ball at goal and Zardes stabbed it home for a 64th minute goal.
Again, it was the Crew’s tenaciousness that led to the third goal. Valenzuela broke free on the left and found space. Nagbe took the pass and found Diaz. The substitute’s shot from 15 yards out was blocked. A pushed up Harrison Afful won a 50/50 header and Zardes poked a shot at goal that was blocked. As Maikel van der Werff struggled to clear, Zardes poked it home and it was 3-0 Crew.
The third goal let the air tout of the game. FC Cincinnati attempted to push forward to get a consolation goal, but they were only able to fire off three shots the entire second half. None tested Eloy Room, who didn’t have to make a save to record the shutout.
The Crew played games in front of home fans for the first time in six months. 1,500 fans took in the win - the state mandated limit. That amounted to 7.5% of the capacity of MAPFRE Stadium.
The atmosphere was reminiscent of old MLS reserve league games or college friendlies. It wasn’t a normal Crew match by any stretch, but the Nordecke cheered the goals and serenaded the team at the end. It’s a glimpse of life before (and after) COVID-19.
The Crew defense recorded it’s third straight shutout and has a 310-minute streak going. The Black & Gold have given up two goals in 10 games for an absurd 0.2 goals against average. Columbus has eight shutouts on the year.
That league-leading defense has powered the Crew into the top of the Supporters’ Shield standings. After 10 games, the Crew lead the next-best team, the Philadelphia Union by five points. The 7-1-2 start is the best in team history.
The end of Phase One and a nationally televised trip to Chicago to face the Fire on Saturday is upcoming. The kickoff was moved to 3:30 and will appear on Univision. Perhaps MLS is starting to notice what’s going on in Columbus.