The Columbus Crew won’t go down without a fight. The defending MLS Cup champions had their best road performance of the 2021 season in a desperate effort to keep repeat hopes alive at Audi Field in Washington D.C. The match ended with a 3-1 Crew win against D.C. United to send Black & Gold fans straight to the statistics charts to break down the scenarios to clinch the MLS Cup playoffs.
Columbus will wait this week to see what the team needs to accomplish in Sunday’s MLS Decision Day game against the Chicago Fire. But first, here are our major takeaways from the third road win for the Crew in 2021.
Lucas Zelarayan is beyond clutch
If FIFA 22 had a clutch statistic in its video game, Zelarayan should have a 99 rating in that category. The Armenian international never shrinks to the challenge for the Crew when the club is in a big-game situation with his last two performances this week adding to his incredible Columbus career.
Not many thought Zelarayan could top his performance from Wednesday against Orlando City SC with his wonder goal at Lower.com Field. He did just that in D.C. with a commanding game as the catalyst of the Black & Gold attack for all 83 minutes he was on the pitch.
In the first half, Zelarayan pinged long balls all over the field to open up breakaway chances for his teammates. Eventually, he held off from a long ball to dribble into the penalty box to force a penalty kick late in the first 45. He scored the spot kick to energize the momentum in the Crew’s favor. He did the same in the second half, capping off his night with another long-range goal to give him 11 finishes on the season.
Zelarayan will end the regular season with the most goals and assists for the Crew, with multiple of those coming in these must-win games late in the season. Add that to his impressive resume of man of the match performances in black and gold and you have someone who will certainly be in the Crew’s ring of honor.
The road mentality can be strong
A fair criticism for the Crew the last few seasons is the team’s poor road performances. The past three years have been full of underwhelming games by the Black & Gold away from home. Head coach Caleb Porter knew going into Saturday’s game in D.C. that the team needed to have a different mentality than he has seen on the road all season.
The players delivered at Audi Field for what was simply the team’s strongest game away from home all season. The Crew’s road record will still look unimpressive for 2021 with just three wins and five draws in 17 games. This must-win game for the club, however, brought out a different team to what we’ve seen consistently in away games and that’s something they can build on in 2022.
Columbus kept its heads up and went back to business after conceding the early goal to Paul Arriola instead of sinking mentally to allow the focus to drift. This D.C. game should be the blueprint for the Crew going into next season to create a stronger presence outside of Columbus.
The Black & Gold continuity keeps them alive
Porter made a point after the Crew’s win against United that the continuity of the lineups is helping the team towards these performances. Throughout this last stretch of games for Columbus, the lineups have had few to no changes from match to match. The last time the Crew had this continuity of personal was at this time in 2020 and we know how that ended.
Eloy Room has been in goal this whole time. The backline has stayed consistent with some of its best games of 2021 in this final stretch. Darlington Nagbe is hitting his stride with Marlon Hairston or Liam Fraser teaming up with him in the center of midifled. The front four has stayed identical the past few weeks with just Miguel Berry at striker for the recently injured Gyasi Zardes.
The consistent lineups have the Crew playing the team’s best soccer in months with the offense in particular impressing. Columbus has scored 12 goals in its last five matches with some spectacular finishes that have sent Black & Gold fans into a frenzy. The common thread is the attacking midfield trio has remained with Derrick Etienne Jr., Zelarayan and Pedro Santos starting together in all five games.
Health has held the Crew back all year long. But there is proof that when Columbus is fully healthy and playing in rhythm, the team is among the best teams in MLS.