While Sunday afternoon was a showcase between the reigning MLS Cup champions and the reigning Supporters’ Shield winners, it was also a meeting between last season’s best defensive teams and even the best goalkeepers.
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So, it wasn’t surprising when Columbus Crew SC and the Philadelphia Union played to a scoreless draw at Historic Crew Stadium. Rather than being an explosive start for either team to begin their respective 2021 MLS campaign, the game resembled a continuation from 2020, when both sides had stout backlines and high-quality keepers.
“You’re looking at last year’s number one and number two defensive teams, and probably last year’s number one and number two goalkeepers,” Crew SC head coach Caleb Porter said after the game. “I would say (number one and number two backlines) as well … It’s a great Litmus test.”
The game was also a reminder of how impressive both goalkeepers are. For Philadelphia’s Andre Blake, the reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, he produced six saves, including one from point-blank range to prevent Artur from scoring during the second half.
As for Eloy Room, he made a handful of quality saves and continued his impressive start to 2021. The clean sheet was his third in as many matches as he kept the Union scoreless and blanked Real Estelí in both legs of the Concacaf Champions League Round of 16 earlier this month.
“It’s always nice to get clean sheets in the Champions League, but also the (league) competition,” Room said. “Personally, it’s nice to have clean sheets, and for the team as well, but at the end of the day, the points are important. We didn’t get them today, but I am confident we will get them this season.”
There are two key components to Room’s success this season so far in 2021. The first is his quality, which he’s displayed since he arrived from PSV Eindhoven in 2019. Last season, he produced seven shutouts during the regular season and added three more in the postseason, including the 3-0 win against Seattle Sounders FC in the MLS Cup Final.
Against Philadelphia, the Curaçao international had a range of strong saves including a goal-line parry in the 19th minute and a sprawling dive in the 88th minute to keep the score level.
WATCH | Eloy Room with the double-save vs. Philadelphia
WATCH | Eloy Room goes full extension to preserve the draw
But Room also has one of the league’s best backlines playing in front of him.
The Jonathan Mensah-Josh Williams center back pairing combined for nine clearances, five interceptions and two blocks against the Union. On the outside, Harrison Afful delivered another consistent performance, while Milton Valenzuela led the team in touches (65) and won 81.8% of his duels in his 50th MLS regular-season appearance. Even the two holding midfielders, Perry Kitchen and Artur, were admirable in breaking up Philadelphia’s attacks.
The difference between Columbus earning a point instead of three came down to execution in the final third. Porter attributed that to a quick turnaround from last Thursday’s CCL match against Real Estelí.
The Crew have proven their ability to create chances and make matches miserable for opposing backlines, and we should expect that to continue as the team improves in 2021.
So, if the defense continues to dominate opponents – and Room maintains his solid performances – Sunday’s league opener could be the start of a successful regular season as the Crew look to impose their style of play going forward.
“Three clean sheets is great as a defense (and) as a team, but if you want to win games, you have to score,” Room said. “We did not do enough attacking-wise, but I’m confident that we will score in the next games, and if we play like this, we will improve.”