(COLUMBUS, OH) – Through five games, suffice it to say that the Columbus Crew SC attack is firing on all cylinders. And on Saturday, Justin Meram stole the show.
The Black and Gold attacking winger tallied the second brace of his career and in so doing helped the club defend home turf for the second week in a row, upending Orlando City SC 2-0. With the win, Crew SC temporarily moved to the top of the Supporters’ Shield standings.
Simply put, Saturday’s result was a team win made possible by a collective effort to stymie a determined opponent.
“Give Orlando a lot of credit, they made it tough on us,” Crew SC manager Gregg Berhalter told the Columbus Dispatch post-game. “They kept fighting. Defensively, they were very good. They made it very hard for us to circulate the ball. (In) the second half, they pressed higher, and it was challenging.”
Justin Meram Brace, Defensive Solidity Vault Columbus Crew SC to Third Straight Win
Columbus manager Gregg Berhalter set his club up in the familiar 4-2-3-1 formation. But he made two changes in the starting XI from last week’s 3-2 win over the Portland Timbers.
Rookie Alex Crognale replaced Jonathan Mensah who sat out the entire game due to a hamstring injury. And Jukka Raitala reprised his role at starting left back after returning from international duty with Finland.
Meram’s Opening Tally
The match began with the two clubs trading stretches of possession. But 13 minutes in, the home-standing side drew first blood. Attacking midfielder Justin Meram settled a long ball played from a deep-lying position by Artur. He then took on defender Jonathan Spector, flared left and chipped it over Orlando goalkeeper Joe Bendik for the 1-0 lead.
Though Columbus continued to generate opportunities around the goal in the opening 45, not much came of them. In contrast, Orlando City found ways to test Zack Steffen. The Crew SC goalkeeper made two saves in the first half. It included corralling a 33rd minute laser from left back Donny Toia from just outside the box off the half volley.
Surviving the Onslaught
In the second stanza, Crew SC weathered the storm against an Orlando side in a determined search for the equalizer. The Lions outshot Columbus 9-3 in total and 4-0 through the first 30 minutes of the half. Yet through it all, the club held firm and did not concede.
It provided a precipice for the home team to eventually seal the deal late.
Closing the Deal With a Pipa-Meram Combo
The Black and Gold doubled their lead in the 77th minute. And once again, Meram put the icing on the cake of some high quality build-up play. This time, it was Higuain’s turn to play provider.
The Argentine enganche won a ball near midfield, brought it down pitch and slotted a diagonal ball out right. Meram then took it into the box, tucked in past 71st minute substitute Scott Sutter and, using hockey terminology, five-holed Bendik to make it 2-0 Columbus.
“He sees things (on the field) that not many people see, not even in the stands,” Meram noted about Higuaín. “(It was) a fantastic pass by him and luckily (for me), a nice little finish, nice little roller.”
Alex Crognale Coming Out Party
What made the defensive stoutness all the more impressive is the presence of Crognale. Making just the second start of his career due to Mensah’s injury, the Homegrown center back continues to excel at getting the ball out of dangerous positions. His 9.1 clearances per 90 minutes is fourth in MLS among players with at least 180 minutes of game action.
It’s a testament to the high level of cohesion that’s developing over a short period of time in the central defense.
“I think the guys are in a really good spot right now,” Crognale said. “The camaraderie is great. We’ve been positive with each other through the ups and the downs. And I think it shows on the field.”
Artur and Wil Trapp: Dual Engine in Central Midfield
Defensive soundness comes about in a 4-2-3-1 partly from that tandem in front of the back four. The better they can win balls in central midfield, the safer their team will be from conceding. It also helps to have players solid with the ball at their feet and cycling it into the attack.
For Crew SC, this is where Artur and Wil Trapp come in. And against the Lions, they came through with flying colors. Berhalter spoke with Trapp before the game about his importance on Saturday.
“Before the game, I talked to Wil and I said he’s going to have a pivotal role in the game,” the Crew SC boss mentioned. “He’s going to have to balance between the midfield and the back line. And he did that really well.”
The stats bear this out. Him and Artur industriously won possession all game and were surgical in distribution. Together, they combined for 15 recoveries, eight interceptions and seven tackles while connecting on 91 percent of their passes.
Put on an Opta chalkboard, that kind of effort on the field looks like this:
Crognale spoke afterwards about how indispensable the double pivot was in front of him.
“They’ve been unbelievable,” he explained. “They make the game so much easier for myself and the rest of the defenders when they’re doing the dirty work in the midfield, allowing us to contain and do our jobs. For them to win balls and break up plays is huge.”
The triumph over Orlando City moves Columbus to 3-1-2 all-time against the third-year MLS club. It also gives them a three-game winning streak and, at the time of this writing, the best record in MLS.
After a pair of home games, Crew SC becomes the visiting team next week. The Black and Gold faces off against their rival the Chicago Fire on Saturday, April 8th. It’s the first meeting between the clubs since the Fire made their high profile acquisition of Bastian Schweinsteiger.
Kickoff takes place at 2 PM ET with local television provided by Spectrum Sports Ohio. The match is available nationally on MLS Live.
Photo credit: Columbus Crew SC Communications