With the playoffs in doubt, the Columbus Crew needed a result to continue the climb to the red line. Instead the Black & Gold fell 3-0 on the road after another quiet offensive showing.
Operating out of a back three that could switch between a 3-4-2-1 and a back five, the Crew opened the game looking solid at the back. The hosts kept the ball for much of the opening 10 minutes, but the Union never really threatened goal despite the possession.
Columbus started seeing more possession, but the attack wasn’t able to create dangerous chances. They only had an 18th minute Milton Valenzuela shot that went well high of goal. Philadelphia could only create shots from distance in the early stages, including a 20th minute Jamiro Montiero shot that didn’t come close to testing the Crew goal.
The Union struck first off a free kick in the 25th minute. After Darlington Nagbe fouled Montiero, Philadelphia centerback Jack Elliot unleashed a low skipping shot from 30 yards that slipped past the wall and by the diving Evan Bush. The Crew had settled into the game, but gave up the first goal for the 15th time on the season.
After the goal, the momentum swung towards the Union. The Crew struggled to push the ball through the Philadelphia midfield and often resorted to long balls forward. The Union controlled possession, but couldn’t turn time on the ball into chances. The only shot came just before halftime as Alvas Powell put his shot over the bar in added time.
The hosts came out of halftime on the front foot and opened the second half with a goal. Ale Bedoya took a recovery off a Zardes turover 40 yards down the right side and through midfield. He then dropped a pass to Kacper Przybylko, cut into the box and finished the return pass to make it 2-0 before a minute passed from the opening whistle.
The Crew looked to the bench in an attempt to come back into the game and after a Montero free kick nearly made it 3-0, Columbus made a double substitution, replacing Valenzuela and Aboubakar Keita with Derrick Etienne and Luis Diaz, moving to a 4-2-3-1.
The Union looked comfortable, including a Przybylko shot forcing a big save from Evan Bush, until Kai Wagner brought down Diaz in the open field. Victor Rivas called the clear foul and gave Wagner his second yellow card, putting Philadelphia down to 10 men for the remainder of the match.
Columbus pushed forward and appeared to get a break against the steadfast Union defense in the 75th minute. Gyasi Zardes was fouled by Powell tracking down a long ball into the box. Rivas quickly made the call for a penalty and wasn’t prompted to review. Pedro Santos stepped up and drove his shot right, but Andre Blake was up to the shot and parried it wide.
The Crew had a Lucas Zelarayan free kick from 23 yards out on the left side in the 78th minute, prime free kick territory, but he pulled it wide and didn’t test Blake.
Nagbe, collecting a weak clearance in the 80th minute, took a step and sound space to take a shot. His bending shot forced a diving right handed save from Blake, who once again, single handedly kept the Crew off the board.
The Union put the game out of reach in the 89th minute as they countered a stretched Crew defense. Quinn Sullivan floated a cross to Leon Flatch. The American born German blasted a shot that Bush got a hand to, but couldn’t keep out.
The Crew found the back of the net in the 91st minute. Zardes punched in a Diaz cross, but the flag went up and the goal did not count.
Back three or back four? No shutout and no goals
The Crew played a back three for the second consecutive game. Against Cruz Azul, the Columbus defense was steadfast in the face of constant pressure while the offense was opportunistic. There was no such luck in Philadelphia. The hosts scored on a long free kick that was poorly defended. The second goal came in transition, with the midfield wide open, no one tracked Bedoya as he ran from the defensive third to the center of the Crew’s penalty area. When the Crew need to defend with numbers, the back three helps, but Columbus struggled when the game opened up.
Offensively, the Union didn’t allow any of the easy transition attacks that the Black & Gold relied on in the Campeones Cup. Nagbe wasn’t given time or space to dribble through midfield. Zelarayan was disconnected as the left attacking midfielder under Zardes and failed to consistently influence the attack.
The Crew looked a little better when they moved into the 4-2-3-1, but some of that is attributable to playing up a man after Wagner’s second yellow. Still Columbus couldn’t find the seams in the strong Union defense and the penalty was the only good chance inside the Philadelphia penalty area.
Wrong turn on the drive to the Playoffs
Columbus needed points on the day to keep pace in hopes of getting into the playoffs. Coming into the match, there were seven games left and the Crew were six points out of the final playoff spot, currently held by the Montreal Impact. After today, the Crew have six games left and still have six points to make up. A tie would have kept the Crew close to the Impact and put them above the New York Red Bulls and out of 10th place. As it stands, the Red Bulls have a game in hand and are tied on points.
There still is the smallest bit of daylight for Columbus. They have a heavy home slate in their final six. They have midweek games at Nashville and D.C. this month, but they host Miami, Red Bulls, Orlando, and Chicago. With 12 points remaining at Lower.com Field, the Crew have to take all 12 to realistically sneak into the playoffs.
The loss cripples the Crew’s playoff chances. The Black & Gold is six points out of the playoffs, behind the Montreal Impact. Columbus has nearly two weeks off as they don’t have a game during the international break. They will host Inter Miami on Saturday, October 16th at 6:00 pm.