Saturday night, the Columbus Crew’s match carried weight. Win and the Crew continue to stay in the battle for a spot in the MLS Cup playoffs. Lose or draw and the Black & Gold’s already uphill climb becomes much steeper. With the New York Red Bulls in town, and without their two best offensive weapons managed two late goals by a substitute to win 2-1.
In what was basically a playoff match for the Crew. Forward Cucho Hernández and midfielder Lucas Zelarayán each were out the starting lineup. For Zelarayán, who held a spot on the bench, it was due to international duty with Armenia overseas and getting back too late to be incorporated in Columbus’ game plan. Hernández missed due to a league-mandated suspension for using offensive language on the field in the 1-1 draw against the Portland Timbers on Sept. 18.
In their place was forward Erik Hurtado and a three-man midfield featuring Darlington Nagbe, Artur and Aidan Morris.
Those changes were evident with Columbus’ game plan looking much different than usual. Head coach Caleb Porter opted for the 4-3-3 formation, creating chances mostly on counter attacks and New York turnovers.
Neither side looked particularly dangerous though, setting the match up as a classic New York Columbus game featuring no goals and a lot of drama. The first half featured 15 fouls, with the Red Bulls owning 10.
It was as physical as the foul numbers suggest, but only two yellows. The first went to the visitors. Moments after taking a shot that almost put New York up, midfielder Daniel Edelman went in for a tackle on Morris, with his boot studs facing out, and sending Morris to the ground in pain. It took almost a minute but it was met with a yellow card, eventually.
The other was for the Crew, donning gold kits on the night. In the 26th minute, new American citizen Artur ran side by side with forward Lewis Morgan, and in the scuffle fell to the ground and clipped the Scottish goal scorer to the ground. It looked like an innocent enough challenge but Morgan responded by getting up and pushing Artur, causing players from both sides to get into a mini scrum.
Only one shot went on goal, stopped by Crew goalkeeper Eloy Room who made two stops in the half total with one coming from his own teammate. The Crew’s offense was struggling, even though they held 69.6% possession.
In that possession, Columbus had one total shot and none on goal. It was clear that the second half needed to have some sort of offensive change from their more counter-attacking first-half game plan.
Just before halftime, Columbus’ fifth foul of the night gave the Red Bulls a chance to get on the scoreboard. Fullback Steven Moreira chased down Morgan and Morgan went to the grass. The replay showed little to no contact between the two, with Moreira blocking the referee’s view as Morgan was running towards the corner flag.
Just before the halftime whistle. New York sent a cross into the box, but instead of a chance on goal, New York center back Hassan Ndam collided with Room. That caused the third skirmish between the teams on the night, but meant the match stayed 0-0 entering the locker room.
At halftime, New York made two substitutes, but absent from Columbus was the inclusion of Zelarayán. With one shot total in the first half and none on goal, it would make sense to bring in the facilitator. Instead, the Crew continued with their starting 11 and eight minutes in, right before Zelarayán was brought in, New York went ahead.
In the 53rd minute, the Crew attempted a clearance inside their defensive penalty area. Right in front of the Nordecke, Columbus’ supporter section, the ball made it to the feet of midfielder Frankie Amaya. Nagbe feigned an attempt to close in on the shooter, but instead blocked the view of Room and the shot went past Room for a 1-0 Red Bulls lead.
Zelarayán entered immediately after that goal, but it was too late. Columbus still couldn’t muster a shot on goal. Porter did make additional changes that tipped the scales towards the home side.
Jacen Russell-Rowe, the MLS NEXT Pro golden boot winner, entered alongside winger Derrick Etienne Jr. and Mo Farsi. The substitutions brought an intensity that was lacking in the Columbus offense for most of the match, it still took into the 80th minute before Columbus got close.
In the 81st minute, Russell-Rowe charged towards the goal line and sent a pass inside the box. The perfect pass landed at the feet of a charging Etienne who skied it. The frustration in the building was growing with anxiousness felt in the stands and on the field.
Again, Etienne sent in a chance that required a save, and Columbus held sustained possession in their offensive half with New York sitting back to make any goals more difficult. Even so, the Crew found a way.
The Crew ran the length of the field, and with passing and team movement saw Farsi run into the penalty area with possession. This time, Etienne wouldn’t be denied. With the ball at his feet, Etienne squared up and put Columbus level at 1-1 just before four minutes of second half stoppage.
When it felt like the match was destined for another draw. It was another Crew 2 player in Russell-Rowe who helped create a chance. With a quick Zelarayán touch on the ball, Russell-Rowe received possession in the penalty area and shot. The saved attempt landed at Etienne again who scored a substitute brace, putting Columbus up 2-1.
When Etienne’s first shot went over the crossbar, it felt like all hope was lost and it felt like a fitting end to the season. What happened next could be a tipping point for the rest of the season.
Etienne’s two composed goals finally showed a Crew side that has the fight that supporters have heard they’ve had from Porter and players in countless press conferences. For the Crew, they’re hoping they didn’t find the hope too late.
Offensive set piece woes
With Zelarayán on the bench to start the match, there was a question on who would take corner and free kicks. The job went to winger Kevin Molino. Columbus had two first half corners, and Molino took the first and all free kicks. Each one was seemingly worse than the last, with many chances going past the penalty area and out for a goal kick.
Also, if the passes weren’t sent into the box, short passes were either intercepted or sent all the way back to Room to restart the play from the back. It was to the point that New York’s fouling was helping the Red Bulls more than the Black & Gold.
Columbus has two more matches to end the season. Up first is a 74-minute match against Charlotte FC, after their match on July 30 was delayed for storms and then postponed late into the night after 16 minutes of match play.
The Black & Gold then travel to Orlando for Decision Day. Both teams are in the playoff picture, with Orlando already in the top seven. Charlotte’s chances are worse than Columbus’, but they aren’t out of the conversation if Inter Miami drops points to end the year.