A match that began 67 days ago finally came to a conclusion on Wednesday nigh between the Columbus Crew and Charlotte FC, completing a postponed match that grew in MLS Cup playoff implications in the months following the original kickoff. Unfortunately, the Black & Gold give up another two-goal lead away from home, settling for a late 2-2 draw.
It was an odd feeling to see the match start in the 16th minute, but once it began, it felt like mid-match energy. Columbus challenged first when winger Derrick Etienne Jr. found forward Cucho Hernández whose shot was deflected back to Etienne but the final shot went out for a goal kick.
In the 28th minute, forward Ben Bender got on the end of a cross deep in the Crew defensive penalty area. It looked like a perfect spot to go ahead, but Bender hit the show wide, with the Crew pleading for offside.
Within eight minutes, Bender had another chance, trying to catch goalkeeper Eloy Room off his line from midfield. The chance didn’t cause too many hearts to race because Room got back and stopped it cleanly.
Shortly after, the visitors secured a free kick at midfield. Within a foot inside of the touchline, playmaker Lucas Zelarayán threw his name in the team’s Goal of the Year competition when he launched a shot that curved right below the crossbar and over the head of goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina.
Coming out of the halftime locker room, Charlotte recognized they needed a change and brought in Daniel Rios and Derrick Jones. Both became key players for Charlotte in their recent three-match winning streak. With new blood on the field for the side needing a win, the Black & Gold still controlled the narrative.
Early in the half Díaz was taken down right outside of the penalty area, but the close-range free kick by Zelarayán but couldn’t repeat the magic of the first half attempt. Morris then found himself open at the top of the penalty area, but a shot didn’t have enough behind it to challenge Kahlina.
Columbus didn’t relent and in the 54th minute added a second. Hernández, on the break, made a leaping backheel pass forward to Etienne down the left sideline, who sent a cross into the penalty box for Díaz on the far post wide open. The speedy attacker slotted a goal into the back of the net.
It felt like the Crew was firmly in the driver’s seat, but Charlotte’s fire grew stronger. Charlotte only let the Black & Gold have a two-goal lead for four minutes. After taking a free kick 10-15 yards away from the spot of a foul, Charlotte charged ahead and Rios showed why he was brought into the match.
With Rios and a teammate on a shorter fullback Pedro Santos, Rios leapt towards a cross and headed in a goal for the expansion side.
For the over 20 minutes that followed, the match opened up. With Charlotte forcing players forward, Columbus had its fair share of chances on the break but Kahlina made up for his two goalkeeper mistakes to make two highlight reel saves.
The last 10 minutes and stoppage time turned the intensity up even higher. In the 84th minute, Room made two huge saves to hold the one-goal lead.
Recent history repeated itself. In the 93rd minute, Andre Shinyashiki received a pass inside the goalkeeper’s area and level the match for Charlotte, ending the match 2-2.
A draw eliminated Charlotte from the MLS Cup playoffs, but the single point keeps Columbus in the hunt.
With the single point, the Crew is in an MLS Cup playoff. A win on Sunday and a non-draw between Inter Miami and Orlando City SC on Wednesday puts the Black & Gold in the postseason.
If Columbus can make it into the playoffs and suffer an early postseason defeat, there will be a lot of looking back at the matches that could’ve put them into a home playoff match spot. Wednesday night was another one.
With Zelarayán’s first half goal, the Argentinian maestro entered an exclusive club as only the third player in Crew history to have 10 or more goals and assists in the same season. Former striker Jeff Cunningham did the same in 2001 and midfielder Ethan Finlay had 12 goals and 13 assists in the Black & Gold 2015 MLS Cup Final season that fell one win short of a league title.
Zelarayán’s impact on the field stretches beyond the stat sheet, but having this moment cements the No. 10 as a Crew legend even more than he’s already ascended. That goal is also the 14th for Zelarayán from outside of the penalty box since the start of 2021, eight more than the next player on the list.
There’s only one match remaining in the 2022 MLS regular season. On Decision Day, the Crew faces off against one of the teams that the team is trying to jump ahead of for a playoff spot in Orlando City SC.