If the first two league games showed why Columbus Crew SC is one of MLS’ strongest defensive teams, Saturday afternoon was a reminder of the club’s true identity: aggressive, attractive and attacking soccer.
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On a day when the Crew produced only three shots on target, they put three goals past D.C. United in a 3-1 win at Historic Crew Stadium for the first league win in 2021.
While the performance reiterated the club’s ability to generate and convert attacking opportunities, it was also a reminder of how strong the team’s roster is in the final third.
Reigning MLS Newcomer of the Year Lucas Zelarayan fired the Crew into the lead in the 20th minute with a stunning free kick that dipped over the United wall and away from opposing goalkeeper Chris Seitz.
“(Lucas Zelarayan is) huge for us,” Porter said after the win. “When he’s in, we have a much better chance. That’s why we signed him. He’s got quality, he can do the unexpected, he can hit a dead ball, he can pull off a play at any given moment. Every good team has that. There’s not a good team in the world that doesn’t have individuals that can create for themselves and pull off a play.”
The Crew doubled their lead in the 63rd minute when Luis Diaz delivered a pinpoint cross to Pedro Santos on the left wing. Santos controlled the ball and produced a vicious volley toward goal. Initially saved, a charging run from Gyasi Zardes put Frédéric Brilliant into an uncomfortable position and the defender’s attempted clearance smashed into the side netting of his own goal.
The third goal in the 83rd minute – a minute after D.C. United scored – was similar to the Crew’s second. Santos played a cross to Zardes, but it was intercepted by a United defender, who directed the ball goalward. Tony Alfaro’s effort to prevent a goal led to him putting the ball into his own net.
At first glance, seeing how the Crew produced their three goals is underwhelming: a free kick and two own goals. But what matters, and will matter for the club moving forward, is how Columbus created the opportunities.
Whereas the first two games proved opponents will struggle to breakdown the Black and Gold backline, Saturday’s game reiterated that opponents will also struggle stopping the Crew’s dynamic attack.
In the first half, both clubs played more direct. The home side found opportunities to dribble into dangerous areas and force D.C. United players to commit to tackles. If they were late, that led to fouls, which is exactly how Zelarayan put himself into position to score the club’s first MLS goal in 2021. On the day, Columbus recorded 15 touches in the opponent’s box, the most by the team this regular season, with Pedro Santos recording a team-high three.
In the second half, Zardes only played 33 minutes – and didn’t take a shot – but his runs directly led to the Crew’s second and third goals.
“I thought Gyasi looked a lot better coming in, that shoulder is getting better,” Porter said of the forward who missed the last league match against CF Montreal. “We knew early in the game it was going to be a little direct, so [we] thought it was the best thing to do get him in [during] the second half. He did a really good job coming in the game.”
One of the traits of a great team is its ability to not only create opportunities, but also convert them, as Columbus posted a 37.5-percent shot conversion rate (ex. blocks), another regular-season-high.
Through the first three league games of 2021, the Crew has proven the ability to create chances. On Saturday, the team showed that they can bury them.
Led by Zelarayan, who had the opening goal and four key passes, Columbus got itself in dangerous positions and punished D.C. United. It didn’t matter that the only player with more than one shot was a center back. (Jonathan Mensah had four.)
While the team is no longer balancing two competitions with MLS and the Concacaf Champions League, the schedule isn’t any easier moving forward.
Following the win against D.C., the Crew will now play their next three matches on the road, beginning next Saturday against Toronto FC in the Trillium Cup.
Three goals (and three points) are a nice takeaway from the penultimate match at Historic Crew Stadium, but it could mark the emergence of one of MLS’ most dangerous attacks. If the Crew proved anything on Saturday, the team showed it can still wreak havoc on an opposing backline even if they don’t take the shots themselves.