A return to the touchline for head coach Laurent Courtois led Columbus Crew 2 to a 2-0 victory against Philadelphia Union II on Saturday evening at Lower.com Field. The victory secures Crew 2’s place at the top of the Central Division in MLS NEXT Pro. A singular point the rest of the season or a Toronto FC II loss or tie will secure first place in the Eastern Conference.
A dominant first half saw the Black & Gold take a lead in the 40th minute courtesy of wingback Jake Morris, who blasted his shot past goalkeeper Brooks Thompson. Midfielder Marco Micaletto followed a long ball all the way to the end line, keeping it in bounds to maintain possession for Columbus. After driving into the penalty box, Micaletto calmly played the ball to an on-rushing Morris who made no mistake and powered the ball into the back of the net.
Crew 2 deserved being up 1-0 going into halftime, but should want more from that half. The Black & Gold had 73 percent possession, 12 corners, 12 shots, three shots on goal and 12 crosses going as they went into the locker room. Union II had one shot and it was on goal, barely possessing the ball past the halfway line. Philadelphia did defend well, blocking six shots, winning six tackles and recording 13 clearances in the first half.
The dominance continued in the second half. Union II could not find any sustained possession with just one moment of danger was when midfielder Sean Zawadski made a clumsy tackle at the edge of the 18-yard box. Fortunately for Columbus, this took place at the edge of the penalty box and was therefore not a penalty kick. Goalkeeper Patrick Schulte recorded what should be his easiest professional clean sheet, which also puts him atop the clean shutout list in MLS NEXT Pro with seven on the year.
Philadelphia was unable to finish the match with 11 men after midfielder Bajung Darboe made a poor challenge on wingback Coleman Gannon, earning his second yellow in the 59th minute.
The game might have gotten out of hand early, as Union II was out-shot by Crew 2 22-5 and one shot on goal to seven. Philadelphia’s low block and organized defending led to a total of nine blocked shots and 20 clearances. After the match, Courtois mentioned how the matchup against Union II was vastly different from the last game, as many of the normal first-team players that will travel with the second team were not there.
It looked like the game would end 1-0 as Philadelphia could not put a shot on target in the second half and the Black & Gold could not get past the low block. However, a long ball into substitute wingback Jordan Knight turned into a cross toward forward Jacen Russell-Rowe, who guided the ball into the back of the net with a single touch. The goal puts Russell-Rowe one ahead of Orlando forward Jack Lynn in the MLS NEXT Pro Golden Boot race.
Only three matches remain in this season and Columbus trails St. Louis City2 by a single point for the number one overall spot in the MLS NEXT Pro standings having now played the same number of games. The mentality of the players and coach will be tested going down this stretch, especially if the team secures the top spot in the Eastern Conference.