Columbus Crew SC sent a stern message on Saturday that they aren’t a pushover in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
The Black and Gold romped to a 3-1 comeback victory over their archrival Chicago Fire in front of 18,690 at MAPFRE Stadium on Saturday. Goals from Kekuta Manneh, Justin Meram and Ola Kamara sent Columbus to its 11th win of the 2017 season. It hands Crew SC its fourth straight season series triumph against the Fire via superior goal difference.
Columbus Crew SC Spring Three in a Row After Trailing Early to Cool Off Chicago Fire
Manager Gregg Berhalter opted for a 3-4-2-1 formation once more. It marked the sixth straight match that the club has set up in this particular shape as opposed to the 4-2-3-1. In that span, the club has compiled two wins, two losses and a draw.
Jonathan Mensah, Josh Williams and Lalas Abubakar comprised the back three. Harrison Afful started at right wing back, his first appearance since July 22. Waylon Francis got the nod on the left hand side for just his eighth start of the year. The central defensive midfield tandem of Artur and Wil Trapp remained. So did the front three, with Meram and Manneh stationed as dual playmakers behind Kamara.
The home team came out with a sense of purpose, generating plenty of scoring opportunities. Seven minutes in, a poor clearance came right to Artur who tried to head it far post only to see it go wide right. It didn’t take long after that for Chicago to make Crew SC rue that and other near misses.
In the 13th minute, Dax McCarty demonstrated his ability to ping accurate floated balls over the top of the defense. His cross into the box found Michael de Leeuw who headed it past Zack Steffen for the opening tally of the game. De Leeuw timed his run well in avoiding the offside trap to put Chicago ahead.
The home side showed exceptional resiliency, though. Five minutes after the Fire drew first blood, Crew SC finally converted one of their many chances through the opening minutes of the first half. A deflected shot from Artur came right to the feet of Manneh who flicked it over Matt Lampson and into the net for the equalizer.
Meram came into this game struggling to replicate the goal-scoring form he enjoyed earlier in the year. In his last ten appearances, the Iraqi international has only managed to find the net twice. But five minutes past the midway point of the second half, he found pay dirt.
With Francis bringing the ball down the left flank, the Crew SC winger sprang towards goal. He came onto Francis’ cross via an incisive central run towards goal. He then one-touched it past Lampson for the go-ahead tally.
Not only did Meram venture into double digit scoring with his tenth of the year. But his score gave the club its 1,000th goal in the team’s 22-year history. He also passed team legend Guillermo Barros Schelotto for seventh on Crew SC’s all-time regular season goalscoring list.
With 17 minutes left in regulation, it became paramount for the club to protect the lead. Squandering late advantages has been hugely problematic in 2017. On four separate occasions has a second half lead turned into a loss when all was said and done.
But the club persevered. Francis made a game-saving tackle on Fire goal-scoring sensation Nemanja Nikolic a few minutes after Meram’s score. It highlighted an improved performance from Crew SC’s defense as a whole, with Nikolic largely ineffective on Saturday.
“I thought (the defense) did well,” Berhalter stated regarding their efforts at neutralizing the Fire attack. “Chicago had a few chances. (David) Accam gave us some trouble and a couple times in the penalty box we could’ve dealt with balls better. But it was a difficult game to play with the way they were set up.”
“It became a difficult challenge. The guys had to stay disciplined. Because if you moved and got out of shape it was going to open up some big gaps and they were able to stay disciplined and give a solid effort.”
Kamara wrapped things up from the spot. After Lampson tripped him up in the box, referee Armando Villarreal immediately awarded a penalty to Crew SC. He then stepped up and knocked it past the former Columbus goalkeeper to double the advantage.
Coming into this game, Chicago had never lost a game in which they scored the first goal in 2017. It’s one of many reasons they find themselves second in the Supporters’ Shield standings behind Toronto FC. But a Crew SC squad that demonstrated toughness and intestinal fortitude put an end to that streak on Saturday.
“We picked the tempo up a little bit (after Chicago’s first goal) and then we got a goal,” Manneh noted. “And it gave us that momentum and confidence that ‘hey, we can get something out of this game if we can score (another) goal and stick to our game plan.'”
“We were very patient and tried to back them up as much as we could when we had the chance and I thought we did that.”
The result vaults Crew SC to fifth place in the Eastern Conference standings. Though they’re even on points with Atlanta United, Columbus owns the tiebreaker due to a higher win total. But Atlanta has three games in hand, so with five of their next seven at home, the club needs to defend home turf down the stretch.
The Black and Gold return to the field next Saturday when they travel to face Orlando City SC. It’s the second of three meetings between Crew SC and the Purple Lions in 2017. Proceedings from central Florida get underway at 7:30 PM ET.
Photo credit: Columbus Crew SC Communications