Head coach Caleb Porter and the Columbus Crew traveled face Atlanta United for the Crew’s final MLS regular season match before two-week international break. The Black & Gold entered with injuries, a different name in the starting 11 and only one win in nine matches. Columbus started the match strong and earned a decisive 2-1 win away from home.
The Crew went 181 minutes without scoring a goal before Saturday’s kickoff. The Black & Gold didn’t let it get to 182. From the start, winger Yaw Yeboah charged the Atlanta defensive penalty area, earning a corner. Fullback Pedro Santos, taking the corner with midfielder Lucas Zelarayán out with an injury, sent in the corner to center back Jonathan Mensah who scored a leaping header. Mensah’s second headed goal at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in 10 months.
With the positive start for Columbus came an equally difficult start for the home side. On the corner kick, Venezuelan defender Ronald Hernández collided with goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth. Hernández tried to return but left the match in the sixth minute, and it wouldn’t be the last injury substitution in the first half.
Down a goal, United earned the team’s fair share of chances. In the ninth minute, on a corner kick, center back Alex De John hit a header on target. Crew goalkeeper Eloy Room put the tips of his glove on the ball and the shot caromed off the crossbar and out of play.
In the 16th minute, the Black & Gold almost added a second. Midfielder Darlington Nagbe sent a booming pass to surprise starting forward Erik Hurtado, who tried to lob a tough bouncing ball into the net and went over the crossbar. Hurtado didn’t let the half end before making his mark on the stat sheet.
Before that, Columbus had its own injury substitution. In the 20th minute, Atlanta winger Luiz Araúio received a pass that cut through the right side of the Crew defense. Charging in on defense was Santos, who stopped the run. Unfortunately, the Portuguese left back landed awkwardly on the run and went to the turf holding his right hamstring. Santos tried to continue but came off the field in the 24th minute for rookie fullback Will Sands.
With the lead, and the Black & Gold now down two of their best players, Atlanta went on the offensive. Sands made two rookie mistakes with a poor pass after coming on, and one instance of allowing United attack. The home side didn’t capitalize on either but started sending shots towards the goal line.
In the 30th minute, midfielder Matheus Rossetto made a backheel pass inside the Five Stripes’ penalty area. Fullback Brooks Lennon received the pass and forced another impressive Room save. Columbus’ keeper made five saves in the half, keeping Columbus on top.
As the half closed, the officials added nine minutes of stoppage time for multiple first half injuries, including a hard rolled ankle by Yeboah that didn’t result in an early substitution. Between the time the fourth official put down his board and the start of those nine minutes, the Crew doubled the lead.
Winger Derrick Etienne Jr. did his best impression of Nagbe’s first half downfield pass and launched the ball down to Hurtado. After receiving the pass, Hurtado crisscrossed in front of De John and found space on his right side. Hurtado put a curling ball past Shuttleworth and the Black & Gold into the locker room up 2-0.
Saturday’s contest was physical. Entering the second half, a first half physicality from both sides extended into the final 45 minutes. Yeboah was on the rough end of one of those Atlanta tackles and, paired with his ankle injury in the first half, went to the bench for James Igbekeme in the 53rd minute.
Columbus sustained Atlanta pressure but called on Room in the 67th minute for a quick reflex stop. Striker Ronaldo Cisneros had a shot on the left side of the Crew’s defensive penalty area. Fullback Steven Moreira blocked Room’s view and as the ball sailed past the Frenchman, Room dove to his left to smack the ball away, and out of the reach of second half substitute Josef Martinez.
The home team loaded its side with offense. Joining MLS record-setting goal scorer Martinez was another potent forward in former Sporting Kansas City and Orlando City SC striker Dom Dwyer. Columbus’ defense took away their potency.
Returning to the starting lineup was center back Miloš Degenek. The Australian international was in the starting 11 for the first time since April 23, against Kansas City. Degenek played sound defense, outside of one minor miscommunication in the first half. Degenek and the Black & Gold backline kept the Crew ahead.
An unfortunate by-product of good defense was another hurt Crew player. In the 81st minute, midfielder Artur toe-poked a ball away from Dwyer who was in the middle of the wind up of a shot. Dwyer sent his foot through and took Artur down to the turf. With no substitutes left, after defender Josh Williams came in to help put the match away, Artur returned to the field but looked worse for the wear.
In the second minute of second half stoppage time, Atlanta found life. Dwyer, nearly on the goal line, sent in a bicycle kick past Williams and Room. After the good-looking shot cut Columbus’ lead in half, a scuffle occurred between Dwyer and Williams, who held onto the ball in the net. Atlanta’s head coach Gonzalo Peneda was sent off in the drama.
Room added to a night of gigantic saves in the fifth minute of stoppage, when he made two more. The first saw Room dive up and to his left, parrying a shot away from the top corner. Seconds later, Room dove low and to his right, for his eighth of the night. The Crew held on and return to Ohio with a 2-1 victory, with a lot of sweating
In seven of the Black & Gold’s 13 matches in 2022, Columbus’ opponents has scored first. Mensah’s first minute goal changed the Crew, adding merit to Porter’s postmatch comments regarding getting that first goal.
Atlanta is a side that has given up its fair share, 17 goals in 13 matches after Saturday’s loss, but the team has also scored at a high clip. When the visitors scored that match starting goal, it made United play a more open style of play to try and cut into the deficit.
Columbus’ defense was challenged but having a lead allowed more of the Crew’s midfield to be part of that work.
There’s no coincidence that Atlanta’s injury list is so long with a field like Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The Black & Gold suffered two turf-invoked injuries in the first half in Santos and Yeboah. Although Yeboah continued, Santos’ movements after going to the ground don’t help Columbus, who are already adjusting to a Zelarayán knee injury from nine matches ago.
It’s too early to tell if Santos suffered a hamstring issue that will take him off the field for an extended period of time, but it’s troubling. Also, Yeboah planted on a normal cross and the turf inflicted a severe fold of the Ghanaian’s ankle, who didn’t look the same after the injury.
Even Artur’s contact late in the match could be made worse by being planted into a difficult playing surface. Now Columbus gets two weeks to assess and heal.
The Crew is off until June 18 when the team welcomes Charlotte FC to Lower.com Field for the first time.