The Columbus Crew returned from a three-week international break the same way the team went out, with a win, on Saturday night. A 2-0 victory against the struggling Chicago Fire helped close Crew Stadium in a fitting fashion and gave the Black & Gold their third win on the trot.
It was an important win for a number of reasons, including making sure the last game at Crew Stadium was a positive memory and keeping the momentum going from before the international break. A busy week is upcoming for Columbus, but we’ll get to that in due time. First, let’s take a look at what we learned from the win against the Fire.
The Crew can throw a party
Over the last year, there has been plenty to celebrate for the Black & Gold. The Crew returned to the playoffs, made the first deep postseason run under head coach Caleb Porter and new ownership and capped that with an MLS Cup title in 2020, just the second in team history.
Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, what should have been massive celebrations for Columbus’ soccer team were muted. A limited number of Crew fans were able to watch the MLS Cup Final live, despite it being at Crew Stadium. There was no party after the championship with players, staff and fans as there was in 2008 in Los Angeles. There was no parade in Columbus to commemorate the Black & Gold’s accomplishments.
On Saturday, all of that pent-up need to celebrate come out all at once. With COVID restrictions lifted in Central Ohio, Crew fans were able to gather as normal in the parking lot before the game. The Mega Tailgate returned in front of Crew Stadium and fans got there early and packed the lot.
Once in the game, the sellout crowd remained dialed in and engaged throughout. It was the atmosphere that the 2020 MLS Cup Final deserved and would have received in a normal year, helping push the players to a win.
After the match, the players got to walk around and thank the fans for their support before seeing “Wise Men” in front of the Nordecke in Crew Stadium one last time. Porter gave his now-famous fist pumps, Frankie Hejduk chugged a beer for old-time sake and Josh Williams, Jonathan Mensah and others spent time shaking hands and speaking with those in the Nordecke. Even the players that couldn’t take part on the field — Artur and Bradley Wright-Phillips, for instance — joined the fans, watching the game from the Nordecke.
There was a firework display fitting of a championship game or the Fourth of July that was supposed to signal the end of the night, but no one wanted to say their final goodbyes to Crew Stadium. Instead, players and fans alike remained on the field or in the stands long after they normally would depart. The supporters continued the party in the parking lot after, as did members of the staff in the Upper 90 Club.
This is a franchise that has had a lot to be excited about over the past year, and beyond, and more coming in the future. Saturday night was an example of how Crew fans and the organization can and should celebrate these major events, making them something the whole city will want to be part of.
The offense is finding its rhythm
Now to the actual game...
For several weeks of this young 2021 season, there were questions about the Black & Gold’s offense. When Lucas Zelarayan was on the field, he was the focal point, scoring or assisting on nearly every goal. When he wasn’t on the field, the offense looked out of ideas and struggled to create chances.
Over the last two games, Zelarayan, while still playing well, hasn’t had to do everything himself. Before the international break, Gyasi Zardes got his first goal of the year and Luis Diaz got off the mark in the win against Toronto FC. On Saturday, Zardes scored again, twice, looking more confident — and healthy — after the break.
Columbus’ offense in general looked more fluid against the Fire. Derrick Etienne Jr. and Alexandru Matan added more to the attack than the wingers had in a number of games this year, helping to create dangerous opportunities. Both Harrison and Afful and Pedro Santos — playing left back again — got forward, providing the balance that has been lacking since Milton Valenzuela got injured.
When receiving questions about the offense, Porter preached patience as the team not only got time to practice together after a hectic schedule, but also got healthy. He appears to be right.
Now add in the dynamic play of Kevin Molino, who made his Crew debut coming off the bench on Saturday night after signing with the team in the offseason, and things are moving in an even more positive direction.
The three weeks off gave the team time to work on smaller details in the game and that was evident offensively against what, it’s fair to point out, is a weak Chicago defense. But you have to score against teams that struggle to defend and Columbus did that. More good things to come.
Pedro’s new position
The Crew has a very good left back in Milton Valenzuela. The team has a solid backup in Waylon Francis. But the answer at the position right now is Pedro Santos.
After starting the season slowly while playing on the wing, Santos has come alive the last two matches operating in the left back role. With both Valenzuela and Francis out against Toronto, Santos assisted on both goals. Against the Fire, he showed not only his attacking ability but strong defensive effort to limit Chicago down the attacking right side.
When Valenzuela returns, he is the first-choice left back, but Santos not only can be a good replacement when needed — as the team does have other options at winger — but maybe even an alternative for specific game plans.
This doesn’t mention that Santos has played three other positions in the last two games, moving up to either winger position and playing as a holding midfielder. Given that he can also fill in at the No. 10 for Zelarayan, Santos’ ability and willingness to play other spots makes him as important as any other player on the roster.