In the second-to-last Columbus Crew home match of the 2021 regular season, the Black & Gold faced stiff chances at securing an MLS Cup playoff spot. On top of that, the Crew faced even stiffer competition in fourth-place Orlando City SC. Orlando came into the midweek match riding a five-game unbeaten run. The roller coaster of Columbus performances continued, this time with a 3-2 victory.
From the start, Orlando controlled the match, resulting in the first shot of the night from forward and U.S. Men’s National Team member Daryl Dike in the sixth minute. Through the early moments of the match, the Black & Gold handled the pressure well and it paid off.
In the 20th minute, the Crew earned two corner kicks. The first ended without any fanfare, but the second put Columbus on the scoreboard. Midfielder Lucas Zelarayan sent in a cross that deflected back to the Armenian National Team member. Zelarayan put more force into a second cross into the penalty box, which forward Miguel Berry headed into the top left-hand corner of the net.
Orlando almost responded five minutes later as Pedro Santos fouled star winger Chris Meuller just 10 yards outside of the corner of the penalty area. On the free kick, the Lions took a headed effort that went a couple of feet wide of the post.
Columbus controlled the middle portion of the first half though, keeping Orlando from real scoring opportunities. Then, 32 matches into the season, Crew winger Derrick Etienne Jr. netted his first goal of the season. Off another corner kick by Zelarayan in the 31st minute, Etienne slid between defender Ruan and the far post, squeaking in the Black & Gold’s second goal of the first half.
Etienne continued his strong half, almost doubling his season goal total seven minutes later. Fullback Steven Moreira sent in a low cross, which Etienne tried to backheel past the goalline. The move fooled the Orlando City defense and Gallese but went out for a goal kick within a foot of the far post.
Columbus ended the first half up two goal, but hurt themselves moments into the second half. Defender Jonathan Mensah, who earned a yellow in the late stages of the first half, gave Orlando a penalty kick in the 50th minute. In an attempt to stop an Orlando City shot, the ball went off Mensah’s arm.
After a VAR check, Orlando was awarded a penalty. Dike sent in a shot, saved by goalkeeper Eloy Room, or so supporters at Lower.com Field thought. After another VAR check, Room stepped off his line and the kick was retaken. This time, there were no questions on the result. Dike sent in a laser to the same left side, this time going past a diving Room, cutting the Crew’s lead in half.
The penalty especially hurt considering shouts from supporters in the first half, when Ruan had a ball hit his upper arm in the penalty area, without a whistle or review.
Following Orlando’s goal, Columbus took advantage of a much more aggressive Orlando side. The Black & Gold avoided Orlando City’s press and found multiple fast break opportunities on offense. In the 57th minute, Etienne chased down a booming pass, only to be fouled inches outside of the penalty area. Zelarayan took his chance on goal from the free kick, without much luck. It ended up being a test shot for what would happen next.
In the 61st minute, five yards further back than his free kick, Zelarayan sent in a knuckleball of a shot. The shot tucked into the top corner of the net, past an outstretched Gallese, giving Columbus another two-goal lead.
For being down two goals, and fighting for playoff seeding of their own, the Lions didn’t have a lot of bite offensively. Mensah and center back partner Vito Wormgoor clogged passing lanes the entire night. The biggest defensive stop came in the 80th minute, when Wormgoor lunged in front of an Orlando City shot on goal to clear the ball before it got to Room.
The Crew went heavy on the defensive substitutions, bringing in Harrison Afful, Josh Williams and Aboubacar Keita to ice the result. Even with those changes, Orlando cut the lead to one in stoppage time. In the second minute of stoppage time, Orlando defender Robin Jansson put a shot past Room.
In a nervy final minutes of stoppage time, the Lions had a spell of offensive pressure not seen in the previous 90 plus minutes of match time. Even with the second Orlando goal, they couldn’t completely clear the deficit, leaving all three points to the Crew.
Etienne’s first goal this year is also only the fourth goal by a starting Crew winger in 2021. Luis Diaz, Kevin Molino and Santos each fill out the remaining three this season. At the end of the year, with or without postseason soccer, the Crew has to find more ways to score from the position. Whether it’s from different tactics or personnel, Columbus’ goalscoring lacks diversity and needs to grow for the team to consistently compete.
Zelarayan Highlight Reel Grows
The Crew’s No. 10, Zelarayan, scored only three goals in 16 matches since the start of August. As the Black & Gold’s results were up and down, so have been Zelarayan’s performances. Wednesday night, Zelarayan responded in a big way.
All three goals on Wednesday evening included work by Zelarayan. With only 180 minutes of regular season soccer remaining, how Zelarayan goes is how the Crew will go. More goals like tonight remind supporters how dangerous Zelarayan can be in this league.
Columbus didn’t only have to win. The Black & Gold needed help to tighten the gap to reach the seventh and final MLS Cup playoff spot. A big win is helpful, but sixth and seventh place Atlanta United and D.C. United each won their Wednesday night matches, keeping the distance for the Crew at four points. Columbus can tie D.C. United with three points, but lose the goal differential tiebreaker if they make up three points to tie.
Saturday night’s match, at Audi Field in Washington D.C., is as big as regular season matches get. Win, and win convincingly, and Columbus isn’t out of the fight.