The Columbus Crew’s slim hopes at making the playoffs and defending the team’s MLS Cup title required a win against Orlando City SC on Wednesday night to remain alive. The Crew achieved that, earning a 3-2 win against the Lions at Lower.com Field.
With two games to play in the Major League Soccer regular season, the Crew sits four points back of seventh place D.C. United. Next up on the schedule is that same United team, so getting the win on Wednesday was crucial.
It may be late in the season, but we learn something about this Black & Gold team with each contest. Before we make a quick turnaround to the D.C. game on Saturday, let’s take a look back at this important win and our major takeaways from the contest.
The Crew has fight... when it needs it
Following a 1-1 draw at Nashville SC last week and a 2-1 loss to the New York Red Bulls on Saturday night, this game for Columbus was more or less a must-win. Acting head coach Ezra Henderickson — who stepped in for the COVID-positive Caleb Porter the last three games — called for his team to show fight and toughness, pushing past any fatigue to get a win against Orlando.
The Crew did that. The Black & Gold came out and held strong as Orlando had some early control. They then took over the game as the first half progressed, scoring the opening goal — which has been important to earning wins for this team — and then doubling the advantage before the halftime whistle.
When the Lions scored early in the first half — after being given a second chance on a penalty kick following an Eloy Room save — Columbus didn’t panic, despite the pressure heating up. The players defended well and created chances, capped off by Lucas Zelarayan’s strike that put the team up 3-1.
Even when Orlando scored in stoppage time and made for a nervy ending, the Crew held on to get the three points. The game showed a lot of fight from the Black & Gold.
The problem is, this fight may have come too late. Even if Columbus wins its final two games of the year, the team will need help to make the postseason. It would have been nice to see this kind of effort and willingness to battle earlier in the year so the Black & Gold weren’t in this unfortunate position.
Lucas Zelarayan continues to be a magician
It’s hard to find descriptors for the Crew’s Argentine playmaker, so forgive us if we are repetitive at times. Zelarayan’s 61st minute strike made ESPN SportCenter’s top-10 plays for the day and will clearly be a Goal of the Year candidate.
Less than 10 minutes after Orlando cut the lead in half, Zelarayan picked up the ball near the outside corner of the penalty box. Most players would drive into the box, looking to create from wide or get in a shooting position. For Zelarayan, last year’s MLS Newcomer of the Year, getting closer doesn’t matter.
While many of Zelarayan’s long-range shots have come from free kicks, this one, hit with the outside of his right foot, did not need to be a dead ball. The No. 10 just teed himself up and curled the ball into the top corner of the goal for the 3-1 advantage and the eventual game-winning goal.
The strike was what Zelarayan will be remembered for in this game, but the playmaker was a major contributor in the Crew getting the win even when he wasn’t scoring. His work rate continued to be among the highest on the team as he covered all sorts of ground. Zelarayan also set up both other goals in the game, playing the ball from wide for both Miguel Berry and Derrick Etienne Jr.’s first half finishes.
If the Black & Gold do make the playoffs, last year’s MLS Cup Final MVP will, undoubtedly, be a major reason why.
It’s not over until it’s over
As mentioned, the Crew showed the type of fight in this game that everyone involved in the game would have liked to see earlier in the year. Injuries and a variety of issues haven’t allowed that to be the case but the Black & Gold won’t go out quietly.
After the game, Henderickson made it clear that Columbus wasn’t willing to give up what is still theirs, last year’s championship. He said it will take the same level of fight against D.C. on Saturday and in the regular season finale against the Chicago Fire the following Sunday.
This team has had plenty of faults this year, and there are likely to be changes this offseason regardless of how the 2021 season ends, but finishing this year on a positive note is important. That’s what this team plans to do and that was reflected in the performance against the Lions.