As the summer rain fell, two white plumes of smoke rose into the sky from behind the goal where Lucas Zelarayán confidently buried his penalty kick past Roman Celentano.
Seconds later, as the floodlights flickered, Zelarayán jumped into the outstretched arms of Jalil Anibaba and raised his fist in delight. Teammates joined in the festivities, as did the Black & Gold supporters throughout Lower.com Field.
Tucked up in the corner near where the Columbus Crew players celebrated were the quiet FC Cincinnati supporters, who, just like usual, saw Columbus remain unbeaten against Cincinnati in the Ohio capital.
Sunday night was a storybook scenario for the Crew, who dominated its southern rival for a 2-0 Hell is Real Derby win. With the result, the Black & Gold leapfrogged the Orange and Blue and jumped back into a playoff position for the first time since the spring.
“I thought it was a pretty complete performance,” head coach Caleb Porter said after the match. “Both sides of ball, came out with a ton of energy … The guys really wanted to make a bit of a statement against a rival. They knew what was at stake.
“They knew our supporters wanted us to win. That meant a lot. I thought the fans, the supporters today were excellent. For me, the best game since I've been here, in terms of energy from them. That really helps us, and I do want to credit the fans. They're a big part of that win today.”
What was billed as the most anticipated Hell Is Real Derby to date (based on standings) turned into two hours of a vintage Crew performance and the dismantling of a Cincinnati side that entered the game six games unbeaten. (Though, it should be noted Luciano Acosta missed the match with a suspension.)
It was Juan “Cucho” Hernandez scoring in his Columbus introduction – and first MLS start – in front of The Nordecke that started the two-hour party. It was Zelarayán’s second half goal that ended any chance of an unlikely Cincinnati comeback.
There are typically fine lines in a rivalry match, but other than Eloy Room needing to make a third-minute save from an Alvaro Barreal cross, there was never really a moment when the Crew weren’t in control.
The opening goal came in the 16th minute when Zelarayán whipped in a driven free kick toward the box. Cucho ran to meet it and guided the ball toward the back post with the coolest of headers.
The goal was his fourth in three games as the Colombian continues his blistering start to life in MLS. And Zelarayán, whose 86th minute penalty sealed the win, somehow looks even more dangerous than he did in the past. With the goal, he snapped his scoreless spell that stretched back to March 12 against Toronto FC.
And with the win, Columbus is unbeaten in eight games, and the Crew has 29 points from 20 matches – good enough for sixth in the Eastern Conference standings. FCC, meanwhile, dropped to seventh with 27 points from 21 matches played.
Most importantly for fans, the Black & Gold are unbeaten in nine of 10 league meetings between the Ohio rivals.
When the final whistle sounded, Porter hugged Cucho and Zelarayán at the same time. The hug was quick, but it’s meaning will last.
The Crew is starting to play like the Crew again, and just like the team’s confidence, the attacking threats are only growing. Sunday felt good, but the overarching feeling is that things will start feeling even better with the two South American playmakers leading the frontline.
“It was probably our best performance of the year – we had nine of our 11, we had nine players on the field who won an MLS Cup,” Porter said. Then, you have Steven [Moreira] and you have Cucho. So those are two very good guys as well. So, we need to keep being greedy. I keep saying it, you know, we're in a good run of games, but you know, we're not celebrating this.
“We got to keep pushing. This league is so difficult, so tight. And we still are just scratching the surface of the team that we can be.”
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