Justin Meram continues to put together an MVP-caliber season.
The Columbus Crew SC attacking midfielder completed his first career hat trick in the first minute of second half stoppage time to give the club a 3-2 win over the Montreal Impact. The late goal helped Columbus overcome two costly defensive errors in the second stanza to emerge victorious.
The result is the first Crew SC win at Stade Saputo since a 2-1 triumph on September 14, 2013.
Justin Meram Hat Trick Vaults Columbus Crew SC to Resilient Win Over Montreal Impact
Manager Gregg Berhalter returned from suspension and made a few changes to the starting XI from Wednesday’s 2-1 loss to Toronto FC. Nicolai Naess returned to the lineup after getting the day off midweek. He joined Jonathan Mensah in central defense. Jukka Raitala returned to starting left back duties, replacing Waylon Francis.
In defensive midfield, Artur made his first appearance as a starter since breaking his left wrist against the New York Red Bulls on April 22. It marked his eighth start of the season alongside team captain Wil Trapp.
Further up the field, Adam Jahn made his first start of 2017 in place of Ola Kamara. With Saturday’s game the third in seven days, managing minutes and keeping players fresh is important. And since Kamara played in 942 of Crew SC’s 990 minutes to this point, he started the game on the bench.
Perhaps the most eye-opening change was the introduction of Kekuta Manneh. The 22-year-old appeared in the starting lineup for the first time since the trade that sent him from Vancouver to Columbus. He took Ethan Finlay‘s spot on the right wing, himself unavailable due to a knee contusion.
First Half Fireworks
After letting a potential win slip away on Wednesday, questions abounded as to how Crew SC would respond. Would the club come out flat or firing on all cylinders? The answer came early on.
14 minutes in, Meram put the visitors ahead. The Columbus left winger deftly took a pass at midfield from Trapp, shielded Hernan Bernardello from the ball and took off in space towards the box. His initial pass to Manneh came right back to him after a deflection off Impact defender Kyle Fisher. He then blasted it past goalkeeper Evan Bush to give Crew SC a 1-0 lead.
It didn’t take long for Meram to double the advantage. Once again, he benefited from the Impact’s inability to get the ball out of danger. This time, he blocked Bernardello’s attempt to clear, weaved around an onrushing Bush and tapped the ball into an empty net.
Columbus took the two goal lead into the locker room at halftime. The possession numbers in the first half indicated a departure from Crew SC’s normal style of play under Berhalter. The Black and Gold enjoyed just over 40 percent of the ball over the first 45. But it’s safe to say the “absorb and counter” strategy paid off.
Defensive Shakiness Reemerges in Second Half
The second half was a different story altogether. Montreal took the game to Crew SC immediately. After blowing leads in two of the previous three games, there were obvious concerns about the Black and Gold’s ability to preserve another one on the road.
Not even ten minutes into the second half and those concerns again came to the forefront. In the 52nd minute, Ignacio Piatti pounced on Naess’ inability to clear a pass from new signing Blerim Dzemaili. The Argentinian playmaker collected the ball near the penalty spot and placed it past Steffen to halve the Crew SC advantage.
The home side didn’t let up. They continued to dominate possession and lay siege to the Columbus side of the field. The Black and Gold’s defense continued to bend but not break, relying heavily on Steffen. Crew SC’s netminder was called into action four times in the second half after not making any saves in the first.
But in the 77th minute, the Impact finally broke through. It came off the head of Anthony Jackson-Hamel who came on in place of Bernardello three minutes earlier. The 23-year-old took advantage of some ball-watching from the Crew SC defenders on a set piece cross from Dzemaili to tie things up.
Suddenly, a back line that looked much improved in 2017 seemed to morph into the frustratingly shaky version of a year earlier.
Meram’s Stoppage Time Heroics
It looked like Crew SC would let another second half lead slip away. Even worse, there was still the very real possibility Montreal could get another with 13 minutes of regulation remaining. The risk of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory for the second straight game loomed large.
But Columbus held their own throughout the remainder of the half. After Jackson-Hamel’s tally, the Impact totaled just a single shot via Piatti in the 81st minute. It enabled the team to go out and reclaim their hold of the match.
It happened in the first minute of stoppage time. And in keeping with the overarching theme in terms of the way Crew SC decided to play on Saturday, it came via the counterattack.
With Montreal’s lines stretched, Columbus had a 3-on-2 situation with Meram dribbling towards goal. He laid the ball out right to Niko Hansen, who came on for Manneh in the 63rd minute. Hansen then squared it back to Meram who one-timed it past Bush far post for the winner.
The three-goal haul takes Meram’s 2017 total to seven. That puts him tied for second in MLS at the time of this writing along with Philadelphia’s CJ Sapong. Only Houston’s Erick “Cubo” Torres’ eight is currently higher. Meram also joins the Crew SC 30 goal/30 assist club with Saturday’s goal trifecta.
Overall, Montreal outshot Columbus 24-10. That included a 13-3 advantage in the second 45. But the ultimate mark of a game is the final scoreline. And Meram’s late goal allowed Columbus to escape Stade Saputo with the biggest win of the 2017 season.
The Black and Gold return to action next Sunday when they face the New England Revolution at Gillette Stadium. It will mark the second meeting between the two clubs both in 2017 as well as the month of May. The match kicks off at 2:30 PM ET.
Photo credit: Columbus Crew SC Communications