After three mostly successful matches to start the 2022 season, the Columbus Crew faced the team’s first true competitor on Sunday. The New York Red Bulls were a 2021 MLS Cup playoff team, after earning just one more point on the table than the Crew. After ending with a big run to end 2021, the momentum carried into 2022. In Harrison, New Jersey, a match that had all the makings of a loss turned into a 1-1 draw at the dying moments of second half stoppage.
The match started with the Black & Gold on the defense. The Red Bulls are known for their pressing, and Columbus spent the first five minutes absorbing. Crew defenders held their shape, and didn’t allow New York to run past the backline.
It took into the 11th minute before the Crew started to get into their offensive half of the pitch. Much of the movement came in the form of midfielder Lucas Zelarayán. The Argentinian highlight reel dribbled through defenders, and attracted two early fouls for the attention coming his way. Unfortunately for the Crew, it couldn’t manifest into an attempt on goal.
New York had the first chance in the 17th minute, on a free kick. On a set piece cross into the box, the Red Bulls winger Sean Nealis got on the end of the pass, but goalkeeper Eloy Room made a save to keep the match level at 0-0.
Much of the first half was a battle of the midfield. Darlington Nagbe and Artur were challenged with the press, but didn’t break. Outside of one foul against Nagbe, on a professional tackle to stop a potential Red Bull run, they held a strong connection.
Columbus’ first 45 minutes weren’t anything close to the offensive powerhouse of the first three matches. The few times that the Black & Gold went on the offensive, there was a Red Bull in their way. In the first half, the Black & Gold shot just twice, with no shots on goal, but they also kept New York off the scoreboard with stout defense.
Starting the second half, the Black & Gold took an early chance to go on goal. Winger Derrick Etienne Jr. sent the ball to Zelarayán who appeared to be tripped in the box. Before any shouts for a penalty could be made, the referee blew the play dead on offsides. From there, it was a solid five minutes of New York knocking on the door.
It began in the Crew defensive penalty box. Center back Jonathan Mensah received a pass in the 18-yard-box but slipped for a moment, allowing New York to capitalize. Mensah recovered quick enough to get the ball away, but not far enough to get passed the Red Bull front line.
Winger John Tolkin had the best chance of the early part of the second half. New York held possession off the light Mensah clearance and got a pass into the young winger Tolkin, in the box. On a volley, Tolkin launched the ball wide of net, on a ball he wish he could’ve had back. The Crew survived a scare, and New York soon survived one of their own.
In the 52nd minute, two minutes after the Tolkin miss, Nealis went in on a tackle to Etienne. Already on a yellow for accumulation, it was Nealis’ sixth of the match and had severity to warrant a second. New York wasted no time with their gift of keeping 11 men on the field, substituting Nealis two minutes later.
Head coach Caleb Porter made a substitute of his own, bringing in forward Gyasi Zardes. After a week of speculation, and a first half from Miguel Berry where he was stifled by the Red Bulls defense, Zardes came in and had the chance to put the Crew up.
Winger Yaw Yeboah received a pass in the 65th minute, creating a 2-on-1 in the Crew offensive half of the field. Yeboah sent in a perfect pass to Zardes, who had a wide open net to score. A mishit caused the ball to go wide right on a shot that never had a chance to go in.
Columbus made another familiar change, bringing in winger Luis Díaz for the fourth time in four matches. It was in an attempt to take advantage of a New York Red Bull side that after pressing for 70 minutes looked tired.
Then, in the 74th and 78th minutes, the Black & Gold had two more golden opportunities that they couldn’t finish. Zardes was first. On a cross by Zelarayán, Zardes threw his foot forward on a chance that didn’t mirror his first miss, but still something within his skillset to finish. The 78th minute was worse.
Etienne received the ball on a breakaway. With only goalkeeper Carlos Coronel to beat, the Red Bull keeper made a save that gave Etienne a second chance. On the second chance, at a difficult angle to convert, Etienne shot the ball across the face of goal.
All the missed chances would come back to hurt Columbus. In the 85th minute, a corner kick went into the Crew defensive penalty box. New York defender Aaron Long got a head to it, after that it bounced off Red Bull substitute Tom Barlow, then Darlington Nagbe and Room before rolling into the net. It went into the scorebook as an own goal for the keeper.
Then, before the beginning of stoppage time, things got worse. Zelarayán went down on the field with an injury. After coming back in initially, Zelarayán had to leave the field again, with the help of the training staff.
Columbus, now down to 10 men with substitutions now done for the Crew, ended up looking like there was no points in site. Then, Nagbe saved the day.
The Crew threw a cross into the box in the fifth minute of five minutes of stoppage time. Columbus had their own pinball like movements in the box, but Nagbe’s toe poke at the end of the chaos rolled slowly into the net, earning the Crew a 1-1 draw.
Nagbe’s even emotions save the day
Something about Nagbe is that the highs are never too high and the lows are never too low, when it comes to the game of soccer. Nagbe stays consistently in the middle with his emotions on the field, and that held composure came up huge.
Nagbe’s known for his consistency in passing, moving the ball along the field and drawing attention from defenders. This time, with the game on the line, Nagbe was in the right place at the right time, but in an offensive way.
In a match where chances were missed left and right for the Crew, Nagbe’s composure turned a match that felt like a culmination of a lot of bad things into something salvageable.
Set piece woes continue
Even in the 1-1 draw, the Crew still haven’t given up a goal in the run of play in 2022. That’s a positive, but the overwhelming negative is single moments, or three moments, in games where one set piece does the team in.
Against New York, it was a corner that bounced around the penalty area. The problem wasn’t the caroms of the ball, but how New York players were allowed to find space to cause them to happen.
Set pieces will continue to be a point of conversation until they stop happening consistently.
The Crew is off next weekend, for the international break. They return to play on April 2, when they welcome Nashville SC to Lower.com Field. Columbus honors former midfielder Frederico Higuain. Nashville will be without Dax McCarty who is out due to a red card received in Saturday’s match against Real Salt Lake.