It was a picture-perfect ending to one of the iconic venues in Major League Soccer. The Columbus Crew sent out historic Crew Stadium with a 2-0 win against the Chicago Fire in front of a sold out crowd on Saturday night. Gyasi Zardes scored a first half brace to give the Black & Gold the easy win and the team saw out the remainder of the game in the second half.
The contest opened with some big-game jitters as neither team looked sharp in the opening minutes. Both teams misplaced passes and looked unsettled in front of a large crowd. However, the Black & Gold settled in first and had the initial chances.
Columbus made the first statement of intent and the ball did end up in the back of the net in the ninth minute off a long ball into the penalty box. Fire goalkeeper Bobby Shuttlesworth claimed the ball but was trundled into by defender Josh Williams, spilling the ball into the goal. Referee Alex Chilowicz quickly called the foul to wipe away the goal before it even went on the board.
The Crew nearly scored off a 12th minute turnover. The Fire tried to quickly transition into attack after cutting off an Alexandru Matan cross, but it was intercepted by Lucas Zelarayan. The playmaker took a touch and put his shot just over the Fire goal.
Columbus did get the deserved opening goal in the 17th minute. With players pushing into the final third, Zelarayan popped up a short chipped cross that forced a Nnamdi Chinonso Offor header that fell to Zardes. The forward ripped a right-footed, one-time shot from 11 yards out to give Columbus a 1-0 lead.
The Black & Gold doubled the lead in the 34th minute, playing a direct long ball over the disorganized Chicago backline. Jonathan Mensah hit a perfect pass forward to a wholly and completely unmarked Derrick Etienne Jr. The winger broke into the final third, pulling wide as Shuttlesworth closed him down. He then crossed to a wide open Zardes for his second on the evening.
The energy from the sold out crowd bled onto the field. The half ended with 12 fouls, seven on the Crew, and three yellow cards. Etienne earned one in the 21st minute for pushing down Ignacio Aliseda after the play ended and Josh Williams brought down Offor in the open field with a rugged challenge. Fabian Herbers scythed down Zelarayan in transition late in the half.
Columbus’ attack kept pouring on the pressure in the second half. Looking at ease with the two-goal advantage, the Black & Gold nearly added a third in the 51st minute as an Etienne cross was headed away, but fell to Zardes wide left of the goal. His driven shot was blocked and the Fire cleared.
Chicago found a stretch of possession about 10 minutes after halftime. The visitors probed the edges of the Columbus defense and found it easier to beat the initial Crew pressure. It resulted in a couple of Francisco Calvo shots, neither of which tested Evan Bush’s net.
The Black & Gold were content to kill off the game up by two goals and looked to sap the energy out of the contest. They were largely successful as the Fire went nearly 20 minutes between shots midway through the second half.
There was a late Fire flurry as Robert Beric launched two very long shots in the 85th minute. Luka Stojanovic’s 88th minute shot went out for a throw-in. Herbers and Beric had two last-ditch shots that didn’t threaten Bush’s goal. The Fire ended the night with 15 shots, but none were on target.
Swiss Army Santos
Pedro Santos is proving to be a versatile weapon for head coach Caleb Porter and the Crew. With Milton Valenzuela still out injured and Waylon Francis limited in how many minutes he could play, Porter put Santos at left back for the second game in a row. He put in 63 minutes of solid defensive work until Francis entered the game. Santos then moved up to left wing to replace Matan. The versatile Portuguese then switched over to the right wing when Kevin Molino entered the game in the 70th minute before exiting with cramps in the 87th minute.
Santos is a top MLS winger and a good attacking left back. He can play attacking midfielder and he finished the Toronto game at central midfield. Versatile players who can fill in at several positions are valuable. Versatile players who can step in and play well at multiple positions are exceedingly rare and very valuable.
Molino’s Crew Debut a good start
Kevin Molino was the capstone offseason signing for the Crew, but injuries had kept him sidelined until Saturday night. Molino is still building fitness and started the game on the bench, entering in the 70th minute and lining up on the left wing. He made nine passes, all successful. He also had a successful dribble. Defensively, he had a recovery and an interception.
It wasn’t an instant impact, but that’s not what Molino and the team needed. With the game in hand, Molino was able to get game fitness and build a rhythm with the team. The Black & Gold checked that off and now can further integrate him into the squad.
The next home game will be in the new stadium, Lower.com Field. The Crew have two road matches until then. Columbus plays the Philadelphia Union on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. ET at Talen Energy Stadium then heads to Texas to face Austin FC on Sunday at 8 PM ET.