In the off-season, Columbus Crew SC head coach and sporting director Gregg Berhalter made it a point to shore up a back line that struggled in 2016. The results of that overhaul were on full display Saturday night.
The Black and Gold pitched a shutout, blanking the New England Revolution 2-0 to erase a two-game losing streak. The win moved Columbus to third in the Eastern Conference with 16 points, trailing Toronto FC and Orlando City SC. Ola Kamara and Federico Higuain notched the goals for Crew SC.
Columbus Crew SC Defensive Depth Shines in Shutout of New England
Crew SC manager Gregg Berhalter made significant defensive changes to the starting XI after last week’s 3-2 loss to New York City FC. Josh Williams made his second start since rejoining the club, slotted into central defense along side Jonathan Mensah. Waylon Francis and Hector Jimenez started at left and right back respectively in place of Jukka Raitala and Harrison Afful. And Nicolai Naess moved into the defensive midfield next to Wil Trapp.
The Black and Gold drew first blood early on. In the 13th minute, Justin Meram found Kamara making a run into the box. The Norwegian number nine then fired a far post curler past Revs goalkeeper Cody Cropper to put the home side up 1-0. It was the sixth goal of the season for Kamara.
Higuain originally received credit for a secondary assist on the goal. If it held up, he would’ve become the third player in Crew SC history to tally 40 goals and 40 assists for the club. But Opta later retracted his helper, meaning he will have to wait another day to join Jeff Cunningham and Brian McBride in reaching that feat.
After that initial strike, the Revs furiously went in search of the equalizer. All seven of their first half shots came after the Crew SC score. But only one of them found goal, a 41st minute blast from Diego Fagundez that goalkeeper Zack Steffen parried away.
Coming out of the locker room, Columbus brought continued purpose to their play. Not content to sit on their one-goal advantage, they kept forcing the issue from a possession standpoint. It didn’t even take ten minutes of second half play for the Black and Gold to find the breakthrough.
After providing the secondary assist on the first goal, Higuain turned goal-scorer for the second. The Argentinian number ten essentially reversed roles with Kamara who assisted on the 53rd minute tally. It marked his third goal of the season to add to his four assists on the year.
Higuain is currently in the midst of a renaissance of sorts with his play in 2017. And it hasn’t gone unnoticed by his coach or his teammates.
“From the outside, I don’t think, sometimes, it’s understood how vital he is to what we do,” Berhalter told MLSSoccer.com. “And for us it was an easy answer because of his quality and how he makes this team run.”
“When he’s on at another level which is most of the time, it opens space for myself,” Meram emphasized. “And when people talk about my success, they don’t realize how much he does for me.”
The match saw some late game controversy. In the 77th minute, Revs defender Je-Vaughan Watson committed a heavy foul on Niko Hansen who replaced Ethan Finlay four minutes earlier. But referee Mark Geiger issued a yellow card which incensed Berhalter. His reaction caused Geiger to eject him from the match.
Berhalter emphasized post-game that his actions were aimed at protecting his player. In his opinion, the foul deserved much more than yellow.
“In my eyes, the reason for the behavior was because of the foul that I perceived,” he said. “I think fouls like that have no business in soccer. I don’t think it was a soccer play. And I’m looking forward to seeing how video review looks at this play.”
Through it all, Crew SC exhibited a great deal of defensive stoutness in holding New England to a goose egg on the scoreboard. The center back pairing of Mensah and Williams continually broke up Rev attacking forays. They performed this task in part via re-establishing possession and, when necessary, putting the ball out of danger.
In total, the two combined for 15 interceptions and nine clearances. That industriousness played a key role in Crew SC preserving the shutout. Their chemistry and cohesion was impressive considering it was the first time Berhalter paired them in central defense this year. And it speaks not only to the depth in the squad but also the work they put in on the training ground. It earned high praise from their goalkeeper.
“We definitely have a lot of depth,” Steffen said. “And you’ll see it in training when we rotate the different sides and different formations. It’s good. As you all saw tonight, all the guys came out and were prepared and ready and we got the shutout and the win.”
Crew SC has little turnaround before their next match. Columbus returns to action this coming Wednesday when they welcome Toronto FC to central Ohio for the second and final time this season. The match kicks off at 7:30 PM ET.
Photo credit: Columbus Crew SC Communications