It was a tale of two halves in the second-to-last game at historic Crew Stadium. The Columbus Crew’s strong first half was enough to earn a 2-1 win over Toronto FC as the Reds' much stronger second 45 minutes wasn’t enough to pull back a point. The three points for the Black & Gold in blue is the first win over Toronto in three years and the second straight in the league as Luis Diaz and Gyasi Zardes scored the goals to get the win.
The Crew starting 11 was certainly unique and a different look and that’s not referring to the PRIDEBLUE kits. Rotation and injuries saw head Caleb Porter elect to start Pedro Santos at left back. Vito Wormgoor got a nod at center back for the captain Jonathan Mensah, who a Crew spokesperson confirmed didn’t start after receiving a false positive COVID-19 test on Friday, whose armband was passed over to Darlington Nagbe for the match. With Santos playing in defense, Derrick Etienne Jr. got the nod at the left wing spot.
Columbus got off to a very quick start with control of the first 10 minutes of the game. The build-up play was efficient and quick and forced plenty of fouls in good crossing territory. The Crew looked like they would be the first team to score and that they were.
In the 12th minute, Toronto’s corner kick was blocked and Santos sent a through ball into the middle for Diaz. The winger had 80 yards to run with just Toronto keeper Alex Bono in front of him. He got to the penalty box and slotted home Columbus’ first goal of the game and his first since 2019.
The Crew thought the team scored in the 19th minute after a pinball sequence in the 18-yard box. Etienne had the ball fall to him at the near post where his shot was blocked by a Toronto defender and Zardes had the ball fall to him where he scored. However, the linesman raised his flag for offside with Zardes offside during Etienne’s shot.
Zardes got an actual goal, his 50th for Columbus, only after he thought he had another scoring effort wiped by the officials. The Crew had a transition play in the 22nd minute as Etienne found the overlapping Santos who sent a perfect cross to the on-running Zardes who poked it home. Initially, the goal was called offside but the VAR took a look and let it count.
The rest of the first half was the Crew controlling possession and continuing to find space through quick build-up. Toronto FC had an uninspiring first 45 minutes with lots of poor touches that led to the ball just rolling away from the team and giveaways in the back from goal kicks. The half ended 2-0 but could have easily been more for the Crew.
Toronto pulled a goal back quickly in the 52nd minute. The Black & Gold defense was caught ball watching and allowed a Toronto shot that was saved by Eloy Room. Vito Wormgoor had a one-on-one tussle with Ayo Akinola as the ball bounced to the middle. Akinola won the ball back and ripped the ball past Room for the Toronto goal.
Toronto controlled the second half early as the Crew possession and transition fell a little flat with sloppy passing. Reds fans were happy to see Alejandro Pozuelo, the reigning MLS MVP, come off the bench in the 55th minute for his season debut after being sidelined with injury since the start of 2021.
Columbus brought defensive reinforcements in the 73rd minute with Mensah coming off the bench and Saad Abdul-Salaam entering for a hobbled Artur. The changes and tactic shift to sit back and defend was enough to hold Toronto to just one goal and confirm the three points. It’s the first winning streak of the MLS season for the defending champions.
Diaz and Zardes get off the mark
The Crew needed to get off the mark with goals in open play and they did just that. Luckily for Caleb Porter, the two goal scorers were guys that also needed to get on the scoresheet to get some confidence back. Diaz and Zardes have both had rough starts to the 2021 season and both needed goals going into the three-week break. With both off the mark, will that be the catalyst to unlock the Crew offense even further?
Santos the left back?
With Valenzuela and Francis out, Porter experimented with Santos at left back and it worked brilliantly. Santos had played the position a couple of times before under previous head coach Gregg Berhalter and in his first defensive start in over two years, he helped to open the transition game on the left for Columbus. Two assists with consistent overlapping runs into space and decent man-marking was a welcome site for Crew fans before the break.
The Crew ends this first portion of the regular season with 11 points and a record of 3-2-2. Columbus and the rest of MLS will have a three-week break due to international games with time to train and rest. The Black & Gold’s next match will be a special one on June 19 when they host the Chicago Fire in the last ever game at historic Crew Stadium.