Against an Atlanta United side that hadn’t won in 12 games, the Columbus Crew lost its third straight game and second in a row at Lower.com Field, falling 3-2 on Saturday night. The Black & Gold have conceded three or more goals in all three losses after a 4-1 loss to New York City FC and a 4-2 defeat at the hands of D.C. United earlier this week. It’s the first time since the last four games of 2000 that this has been the case.
The first Crew goal came from captain and center back Jonathan Mensah on a headed effort off a corner kick, his second goal of the season, the first coming in the same fashion against Atlanta just two weeks ago. Pedro Santos put the Black & Gold within one in the first minute of second half stoppage time after Mensah drew a penalty kick.
Columbus forced Atlanta turnovers and created chances early. Porter recently emphasized the importance of getting that first goal and the Black & Gold came out fighting for it.
But sure enough, as has been true consistently for the Black & Gold as of late, on Atlanta’s first dangerous chance, the visitors converted. In the fourth minute, Ezequiel Barco got on the end of a backheel through ball in the pocket and slotted it past goalkeeper Eloy Room. The Crew was then forced to play from behind for the third straight game.
The defensive blunders continued as Mensah’s pass was intercepted in the 14th minute and the captain was forced to hustle back to help his backline who was able to deflect the shot but found themselves in serious danger of going down by two.
Columbus seemed to be scrambling left and right to keep the ball clear of the penalty box. The sloppy play ended in Mensah getting slammed in the face with a ball off an Atlanta volley in the 26th minute.
In the 34th minute, midfielder Marlon Hairston gave United a penalty after a slide tackle in the box. Up until that point, the midfielder had put up the most impressive performance for the Black & Gold. Barco had no problem getting his second of the night and doubling Atlanta’s lead from the spot. It was the second game in a row Columbus conceded a penalty.
In the 37th minute, Mensah finally got it right. With his second goal of the year and second against the Five Stripes, the Black & Gold captain gave his team some hope. Spurred on by the roar of the crowd, the center back got his head on the end of a corner from Lucas Zelarayan and sent it far post past Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan. It was exactly what the Crew needed from the captain.
The goal before halftime was essential if Columbus was to complete a comeback.
Midfielder Darlington Nagbe was fouled just outside the 18-yard box in the 42nd minute. Naturally, Zelarayan hit one on frame, forcing Guzan on the ground to make the save. Luis Diaz couldn’t get a good hold of the rebound and sent it sailing.
The end of the half was all going the way of the home team, but they couldn’t level the score before heading into the locker room. It wasn’t a bad spot to be in, though. The Black & Gold had been down 2-1 at half two previous times and came back to draw in each.
It didn’t take long to seemingly complete the comeback, as Diaz scored what the team thought was the equalizer in the 49th minute. Though a great run and through ball, the Costa Rican was called offsides and the goal was taken back.
Room and the post kept the Black & Gold in the game in the 52nd minute as the goalkeeper barely got his fingers on a shot from Barco that then deflected off the post to deny him his hattrick.
Mensah and the backline seemed to find their form in the second half, shutting down dangerous chances and balls that the Atlanta offense was throwing at them.
Unfortunately, it only takes one mistake.
In the 64th minute, Harrison Afful gave up a foul and awarded Atlanta the team’s second penalty kick of the night. Room went the wrong way and the Crew was again in a deep hole after Marcelino Moreno, United’s leading scorer, converted from the spot.
An unwelcome sight for the Black & Gold came in the 70th minute when Diaz went down and struggled to get off the field after winning a foul outside the 18-yard box. The winger was taken off holding his shoulder and in considerable pain.
Substitute Derrick Etienne Jr. made an instant impact shortly after Diaz left the field in the 73rd minute with a cut-back shot that left Guzan without a chance. The momentum quickly deflated, however, when the referee called the play offsides yet again and took the goal back.
After that play, the Five Stripes stepped back and played keep away.
A glimmer of hope came in the 90th minute when Mensah drew a foul and a penalty kick which Santos put away to put the Black & Gold within one. The late push wasn’t enough and the Crew fell in their third straight.
A loss to a winless team
Saturday’s result was just Atlanta’s third win of the season, the team’s first since May 15. It couldn’t be attributed to the tight stretch of games, as United experienced the same thing this past week. The Five Stripes also were without forward Josef Martinez, who was with a red card suspension. There was no indication that Atlanta should come to Lower.com Field and win this game other than the Crew’s lack of momentum which seemed to do them in.
Caleb Porter has emphasized time and time again how important it is for the Black & Gold to start strong and get the first goal. And yet even when things were going well for Columbus, the team struggled to do so.
Now the Crew is falling into deep holes and trying to crawl out. While the past two games have seen nearly completed comebacks, it’s not enough when the team can’t finish and the defense isn’t holding up. What comes next is hard to say for the Black & Gold who needed this win before heading back out on the road.
The Crew gets a bit of a breather before traveling to Chicago next Sunday, Aug. 15 to take on the Fire at 6 p.m. ET. The two teams’ last meeting went in favor of the Black & Gold 2-0 back in June.