When head coach Caleb Porter spoke to the media following Saturday night’s game, he said he expected the match was going to be won in the second half. Thus, he strategically kept playmakers like Lucas Zelarayán, Derrick Etienne Jr. and Jacen Russel-Rowe on the bench for a late offensive spark.
What he couldn’t have expected – and what no one inside a sold-out Lower.com Field anticipated – was the game being won in the final five minutes, especially as the Columbus Crew trailed.
But then it happened. Etienne Jr. scored in the 89th minute and again in the 93rd. Both goals sent the fans into bedlam. Both goals went from seeing the Crew on the outside looking into the playoffs, into a club that is very much in the mix in the final week of the regular season.
There are massive moments over the course of a 34-game season, but it’d be hard to imagine a more meaningful sequence than what unfolded in the Crew’s 2-1 comeback victory over the New York Red Bulls.
“It’s not bad to be under pressure the last three games of the year,” Porter said after the win. “Because if you can get in and win those games under pressure, then you’re ready for the playoffs.”
The Black & Gold entered Saturday night eighth in the Eastern Conference with three regular-season games remaining. Because it was the home finale, it wasn’t truly a must-win match, but anything less than three points would see the club scrap and claw in the final week and hope for other results to go their way.
So, a nightmare scenario unfolded in the 53rd minute when Frankie Amaya’s long-range shot, out of nothing, gave the Red Bulls a 1-0 lead in a game where they were largely outplayed and out-possessed. A minute later Zelarayán, who played two matches in Europe during the international break, entered the match hoping to be a second-half hero.
Slowly, the home side generated more and more attacking chances, but it couldn’t find a breakthrough.
That changed in the 89th minute, though, when Pedro Santos, on the right flank, played a ball to the back post. Mohamed Farsi chested it down to Etienne Jr., who adjusted his body and sent his shot to the back post.
The goal turned Lower.com Field into a cauldron of noise, as plumes of gold and black smoke rose into the sky and hung over the stadium, creating a big-time atmosphere that matched the big-time moment.
Suddenly, hope swirled in the air, and the Black & Gold came to life. More chances arrived, and eventually, in the 93rd minute, Russel-Rowe was in on goal in a 1-v-1 scenario. His back post shot was initially saved, but the ball was directed into the path of Etienne Jr., who scored his second of the game and sealed the win.
The full-time whistle sounded shortly thereafter, and the Crew rallied back to remain in postseason contention with two games left.
“This team battled back, and I thought this was the breakthrough that we kind of needed,” Porter said. “We've had some breakthroughs where they’re draws, we come from behind, we have some good performances, we've had some wins. I think the momentum we’ll gain from this – in the manner that we had to come from behind late – I think will give us hopefully momentum into the next two games.”
Columbus will be hoping momentum carries into Wednesday night’s match, which is a continuation of the Crew’s clash with Charlotte FC from July 30. That game was postponed due to weather after 16 minutes of action.
The Crew is eighth in the Eastern Conference, while Charlotte is ninth. More importantly, there’s only a one-point gap between Columbus and fifth-place FC Cincinnati, which has played one more game. Essentially, a win against Charlotte can have massive implications on the final standings.
“Our guys know we’re not out of the woods,” Porter said. “We gotta go to Charlotte and win.”
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