The Crew wanted to get off to a fast start and nearly did just beyond two minutes. Winger Kevin Molino tucked inside, playing a ball from near the top of the penalty box wide to Harrison Afful. The Ghanian fullback played a low cross back to Molino, whose one-time effort was saved by a diving goalkeeper Carlos Coronel.
Five minutes later and it appeared Columbus was about to go down 1-0 when Liam Fraser was called for a foul in the penalty box. Referee Chris Penso quickly pointed to the penalty spot but VAR José Carlos Rivero suggested he take a second look. Penso did just that and reversed the call.
Afful again got in good crossing position in the 15th minute, cutting back to beat Andrew Gutman and served a left-footed cross that nearly found the head of forward Gyasi Zardes.
Fabio had the best chance of the early going for the Red Bulls. The New York forward had the ball inside the penalty box with just enough room to get a shot off, but put his effort well over the goal.
The next-best Red Bull chance also came from Fabio, but this time from his head. From a Red Bulls corner, the forward rose up over the Black & Gold’s defense and put a low, headed effort on frame. Crew goalkeeper Eloy Room dove to his left to make a save and keep the game scoreless in the 22nd minute.
After a good start to the game, New York started to take control, dominating possession and not letting the Black & Gold get out of their defensive third. The visitors finally paid for this in the 33rd minute with a ball played into Fabian, who played a one-touch pass to John Tolkin. The Homegrown midfielder was patient with his cutback and nutmegged Room for the 1-0 advantage and his first MLS goal.
Zardes had the perfect chance to pull the game level in the 42nd minute. A long ball out of the back from center back Aboubacar Keita found Zardes streaking behind the New York defense. The Crew forward fired his shot low but was denied a breakaway goal by Coronel. Zardes then went down, holding his left hamstring. After the medical staff examined Columbus’ No. 11, Zardes had to come out of the game, replaced by playmaker Lucas Zelarayan.
The second half again started brightly for the Crew. Zelarayan found space on the left of the attack and played a ball across the top of the penalty box to a wide open Molino. The winger hit a low shot on target in the 47th minute but Coronel again got down and made the save with his chest.
Caleb Porter went to his bench in the 51st minute, hoping to get more offense on the field. The Black & Gold head coach brought on wingers Derrick Etienne Jr. and Pedro Santos for the ineffective Alexandru Matan and the more defensively inclined Waylon Francis.
In the 57th minute, Santos attempted to take things into his own hands. Playing left back, Santos drove forward and received a cross-field pass. From more than 30 yards out, the Portuguese let rip, sending his shot just wide of the net.
As the clock nearly struck 63, Bradley Wright-Phillips had a chance running in behind the defense. The 36 year old’s legs couldn’t get on the end of the ball in time, as he was able to beat the New York goalkeeper but only just to save the ball from going out for a goal kick.
Three minutes later and there was another good chance for Columbus with a scramble in front of the net. A low cross from Etienne was just behind Wright-Phillips, who put the ball into the six-yard box. Molino was there but couldn’t get good contact to put the ball in the back of the net.
The Crew thought the team had the equalizer in the 76th minute. Second half substitute Erik Hurtado floated a ball into the six-yard box that found Wright-Phillips. The former Red Bull forward hit a one-time strike that was again saved by Coronel.
Just under nine minutes to play and New York had an opportunity to double the home team’s advantage. A lofted pass into the penalty box found Daniel Royer who chested down and hit a shot that resulted in a Room save.
In second half stoppage time, it seemed Hurtado created a goal for the Crew. The winger came rushing into the penalty box and the ball hit Tolkin and went into the Red Bulls’ goal. The equalizer was quickly called back for a foul as Hurtado pushed the New York midfielder in the back.
Changing the tactics
In his three seasons in Columbus, Porter has more or less used the same tactical game plan. While there are variations game to game, the Crew like to play in a 4-2-3-1 formation with an attacking midfielder and keep possession, creating chances through ball movement.
After losing four straight games, struggling to score consistently and playing a Red Bulls team that presses high and makes it hard to control a game, Porter changed things up against New York.
The Black & Gold came out in a 4-4-2 against the Red Bulls, the second time this year the formation has been used — the last time being the Crew’s most recent win. The game plan was apparent, looking to play direct to Zardes and Wright-Phillips and look to use the wingers to serve crosses while staying compact defensively.
For the most part, this idea worked. While the wingers didn’t see enough of the ball in the first half, the defense did stay compact and only was really pulled apart on occasion. Unfortunately, that led to the Red Bulls' goal.
Reaching new marks
If you hadn’t heard, the Black & Gold won the 2020 MLS Cup. The expectation coming into the year was that Columbus would contend again for the championship with an even more talented roster. Injuries and international call-ups have hindered that group’s play together all year.
These expectations are likely even harder to read for Crew fans with their team now losers of five in a row. With Wednesday night’s loss, the Black & Gold became just the second defending MLS Cup champion to lose five in a row after the LA Galaxy did the same in 2006.
That Galaxy team went on to lose seven games on the trot, the MLS record for the previous year’s title winners, so the Crew at least has a couple of games to go until reaching that point.
Speaking of that MLS Cup win, Saturday marks a rematch of that game. The Seattle Sounders, who the Black & Gold beat 3-0 in the title game at historic Crew Stadium last December, come to Lower.com Field. The game is scheduled to kick off at 5:30 p.m. ET on Saturday afternoon.