Leading into Saturday’s Columbus Crew match against Nashville SC, the story centered around Federico Higuaín and Lucas Zelarayán. For Higuaín it was a match of celebration. For Zelarayán, it was speculation that the March MLS Player of the Month wouldn’t be able to play, due to sustaining a knee injury in the Crew’s 1-1 draw against the New York Red Bulls. Higuaín was the only chance for Crew supporters to celebrate though, losing 1-0.
Higuaín’s career was the spotlight leading up to the opening whistle. After signing a one-day contract to retire in Black & Gold, Crew President & General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko and owner Dr. Pete Edwards gave Higuaín a framed jersey. The Nordecke’s present was a little bigger.
As the match began, the North supporters’ section raised an orchestral TIFO of Higuaín holding up a conductor’s wand with the banner “Take a Bow, Maestro.” On the field, the first half felt more like punk rock than a symphony.
The first half of Saturday’s match was physical, with referee Rubiel Vazquez allowing play despite tough play on both sides. His decision making was challenged with calls for penalties from both sides.
It started in the fourth minute. After center back Miloš Degenek slid in for a slide tackle, the ball hit off Nashville, into a charging midfielder Hany Mukhtar. He was met in the back but no foul was called.
Degenek followed the unlucky bounce with two straight tackles to clear the ball away from a Nashville side that was sitting deep and playing on the counter. The visitors did it because of absences in their side. Midfielder Dax McCarty was out for a red card suspension and two regular starters sat on the bench due to international duty. Without center back Walker Zimmerman and midfielder Anibal Godoy in the starting 11, Columbus had a tall task to break through.
In the seventh minute, Columbus had a case of their own. Starting winger Luis Díaz, starting his first match of the season, ran down the right sideline and sent in a great pass to forward Gyasi Zardes, also making his season starting debut. The ball went through two Nashville defenders before Zardes was tackled from behind. There wasn’t a call or evident VAR review, and the match continued.
Halfway through the first half, it was Columbus that had most of the dangerous chances on goal. Zelarayán, who did start despite the injury doubt, had a dangerous shot in the 11th minute. After dribbling through three defenders, Zelarayán shot on goalkeeper Joe Willis, and the ball bounced off the goalkeeper’s gloves and out for a throw.
Nashville didn’t see a lot of offensive possession in the half, but made-up quantity with quality. In the 21stminute, Mukhtar went one-on-one with center back Jonathan Mensah. After four step over attempts to confuse Mensah, the Crew captain wasn’t biting and deflected the shot out for the corner.
Off the field, the Nordecke unfurled another banner in the 23rd minute, but it wasn’t honoring Higuaín again. This time, 22 two-stick banners read “We Believe Jane Doe,” followed by either number one through 22. It represented the 22 accusations of abuse against NFL quarterback DeShaun Watson. The Haslam Family, who are the investor-operators for the Crew, traded for the quarterback on March 18.
Back on the field, Nashville made Columbus pay. In the 28th minute, midfielder Taylor Washington sent a cross into the box. Crew defender Pedro Santos slipped on the grass, something happening more frequently than usual on the night, leaving midfielder Alex Muyl open for a headed goal. The header surprised goalkeeper Eloy Room who didn’t move on the lobbed header into the left corner.
Nashville almost doubled it in the 33rd. This time it was Mukhtar who got a shot past the Crew defense. The arcing shot, that almost looked like a cross, went past Room and pinged off the right post. As the ball slowly rolled towards the goal line, Room grabbed it before it was too late. While the ball did have some green space between it and the goal line, it never fully crossed the line.
Columbus took the deficit into halftime and continued having trouble breaking through the Nashville defense.
To help, Columbus brought in forward Miguel Berry and wingers Yaw Yeboah and Alexandru Matan. If Nashville was playing deep in the first half, the second half they went deeper. Nashville attempted two shots in the second half, compared to 10.
As was the story all night, anytime the Crew had the ball in an advantageous position, there was a Nashville defender blocking passing and shooting lanes. The visitors added two starters as substitutes in Zimmerman and Godoy too, making a difficult climb against a strong defensive team even more difficult.
Columbus’ schedule doesn’t get much easier next week. On Saturday, April 9, the Crew travel to Philadelphia to face the first place Philadelphia Union. The match kicks off at 6:00 p.m. ET.