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Crew win on the road; Zelarayan defeats NYCFC

Columbus downs New York behind two beautiful free kicks

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at New York City FC Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The Columbus Crew win on the road for the first time in a season and a half as Lucas Zelarayan powered the Black & Gold to a 2-1 come from behind win against New York City FC. The Argentine playmaker’s free-kick prowess lifted a lifeless Crew attack to a stunning last-minute victory.

New York City FC aggressively pressed from the opening whistle and it unsettled the Columbus attack. The high-energy defense stifled the Crew attempt to build from the back. The Black & Gold held an early possession edge but were often stuck in their own end; unable to break through the pressure.

That pressure would partially lead to the chance that opened the scoring on the evening. After breaking the initial pressure Afful played a rushed pass into the middle of the field with only Valentín Castellanos took the ball forward into the Crew penalty area. His first shot was blocked, but then he settled and found the late driving Ismael Tajouri-Shradi. The attacker struck from 18 yards out, putting New York up 1-0 in the 18th minute.

NYCFC nearly grabbed a second goal in the 20th minute as Castellanos again found space on the left side. His square ball found Jesus Medina. The forward turned and rocketed a shot from 14 yards out, forcing an amazing Eloy Room parry to keep the game at 1-0.

Again, it was NYCFC with the best chance at the next goal in the 35th minute. Tajouri-Shradi took an attacking throw-in and centered to Castellanos. The attacker’s shot blazed wide of the post.

Columbus continued to struggle offensively through the first half. The Crew didn’t record their first shot on the evening until the 27th minute. After counter-pressing, Columbus found numbers in the attacking third. Pedro Santos cut a ball back to the top of the 18-yard box, finding Luis Diaz. His shot was blocked.

The next Crew chance came just before halftime in the 40th minute off a New York turnover in midfield. In transition, Santos blazed a shot from 30 yards just wide of the post. Without the ability to build, Columbus was forced into the hopeful shot.

The last good chance of the half again went to the hosts and again it came in transition. After recovering another misplaced pass, NYCFC found space in the 18-yard box with wingback Gudmundur Thórarinsson facing Room one on one from a wide-angle. The Curacao keeper’s excellent kick save kept it a one-goal game.

The Crew did show a spark of offense after halftime in the 51st minute. After a corner kick, Diaz quickly regained possession, shedded two defenders, and ripped a cross into the six-yard box. Jonathan Mensah finished the chance, but he was well offside. Diaz’s ability to create his own space was the best look the Black & Gold had all game.

The Crew attack sputtered for much of the second half and New York City FC was content to play conservatively. Tajouri-Shradi’s 57th-minute shot was the last from the home team until a 90th minute Castellanos. Columbus didn’t have a shot from inside the area in the second half. With Lucas Zelarayan, they didn’t need one.

The Crew’s returning playmaker created another moment of magic as he stood over a free kick in the 82nd minute. From nearly 30 yards out, the Argentine powered a knuckleball free-kick that left Sean Johnson fooled and stranded as Columbus equalized.

It was another late free-kick magic from Zelarayan that pulled all three points out for Columbus. After Gyasi Zardes took a pass in the attacking third and poked the ball past Sebastien Ibeagha, the defender checked Zardes to the ground. From just outside the 18-yard box, Zelarayan buried another free kick deep in stoppage time to give Columbus their first road win in a season and a half.

Return of the king

Zelarayan missed last week’s game against New England and the Crew looked punchless in his absence. He returned to the lineup and the Crew looked punchless for 80 minutes with him on the field. Under the relenting NYCFC press, the Columbus attack could keep the ball and do little else. Zardes didn’t have a shot during the game and the only two shots taken inside the penalty area were wildly off target.

The Crew’s playmaker had a single key pass, a corner kick that lead to an off-target shot. Every chance they could, NYCFC marked Zelarayan out of the game. He was left to play on the periphery of the offensive third, shunted wide. He just wasn’t dangerous during the run of play.

Without a way to make an impact during the run of play, Zelarayan found two big ways to make the difference on the night when the NYCFC defense couldn’t pressure him. His two free-kicks cement his status as the preeminent free-kick taker in the league. His first goal, a knuckling shot fooled Johnson into taking a step the wrong way, and then it was too late. His second goal was a classic bending attempt that was the definition of unsavable.

Not quite a record

The Crew’s road woes end on the back of Zelarayan. The team failed to win during the entire strange 2020 season. That last win was 15 games ago in September 2019 in Atlanta. That streak of road futility is tied for the fourth longest in MLS history. San Jose failed to win in 16 games during the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids went winless in 18 games. Salt Lake during the 2004 and 2005 seasons. The Rapids struggles began in 2014 and extended through the start of the 2015 season.

What’s Next

With the win, Columbus moves to 2-2-2 on the season. Their eight points puts them in 6th place in the Eastern Conference after six games. The Crew return home next Saturday to Historic Crew Stadium. They face Toronto FC in a mid-afternoon 3 pm match on Saturday, May 29th