Minnesota United came into Columbus with a lot on the line for Crew SC in this game. Sitting in the sixth and final playoff spot, the home side needed a win to hold their advantage over Montreal Impact or at the very least a loss for the Impact against New England Revolution. Hoping to play spoiler, the Loons came out in a new-look 4-3-3 formation and looked game early before a weather delay put the on the back foot. Despite a brace from captain and defender Francisco Calvo, Minnesota United was unable to overcome a hat trick from forward Gyasi Zardes and fell 3-2 in the season finale.
“It is one of them that I always say you always have something to play for because you are always representing somebody,” said Head Coach Adrian Heath, “whether it be the shirt that you’re wearing or you should have enough pride in your own performance for your family that is probably sitting at home watching or for the 60-70 hearty souls who’ve made the journey here. We have to play for them and that is what you should do. I think today to be honest the players have worked hard. I can’t criticize them, but sometimes working smarter is better than working hard.”
Before the game had even truly begun, lightning near MAPFRE Stadium led to a delay after the 10th minute. The fans headed into the concourse and the teams headed into the locker room for nearly an hour before play could resume. When it did, the Crew jumped all over an MNUFC side still getting warmed up. In the 11th minute, defender Milton Valenzuela picked up the short corner from midfielder Federico Higuain and served in an inch-perfect cross that just missed defender Brent Kallman’s head before finding Zardes. Zardes headed the ball home for a 1-0 Columbus lead. With the goal, Zardes set a new single-season record for the Crew with 17 goals in 2018.
With the wind whipping around and the field slicked by rain, passes skidded across the grass and balls that should have been easy got tricky. In the 15th minute, Kallman blocked a shot from Valenzuela that looked headed out of bounds but got held up by the wind, forcing a save by goalkeeper Matt Lampson. In the difficult conditions, Crew SC built up a majority of possession, leaving the Loons to try and do what they could with the counterattack. Despite some inroads by midfielder Darwin Quintero and Angelo Rodriguez, the Loons struggled to get a foothold in the final third.
Their best opportunity of the first half would come in the 35th minute after Quintero served the ball into the box and found midfielder Miguel Ibarra on the left side. After settling the ball, Ibarra fired it on goal. The ball came off a defender and the replay would show a clear handball that did not get reviewed, leaving MNUFC frustrated.
Near the end of the first half, Rodriguez collided with Steffen as he attempted to put a shot on goal from the left side of the box. Both players went down and Steffen came up with a nasty goose egg on his forehead. Rodriguez eventually got up but would be unable to continue, leading to a call for forward Abu Danladi to replace him just before the halftime whistle.
Columbus doubled their lead shortly after the start of the second half. Taking note of the slick conditions, Higuain dialed up a long, driven free kick that skidded off the grass and hit Lampson square in the chest in goal. Unable to contain the ball, Lampson let the ball bounce out to an unmarked Zardes, who buried the rebound to make it 2-0.
Over the next 20 minutes, the Loons worked to shift the momentum in their direction and it seemed eventually to be working. Several solid defensive efforts helped get them on the front foot and then at last, their efforts paid off in the 68th minute. Off a long free kick from Quintero, Calvo snaked in between a pair of Columbus defenders, chested the ball down and rounded on it, drilling it into the back of the net for his first goal of the season and cutting the lead to 2-1.
Less than 10 minutes later, it would be Calvo who drew the game level with another finish directly in front of net. This time, it was a long ball from the run of play that deflected off defender Harrison Afful before falling at Calvo’s feet, allowing the team’s captain to double his goal total for the game and the season and capture his first brace in MLS.
“I am proud of my team,” said Calvo. “It has been a tough year for us. I think today was a good game. We controlled the game the whole time. We just gave stupid goals away and that is our problem. We just can’t concede three goals on the road because you’ll never win a game if you concede three goals.”
With the momentum squarely on their side, it looked like MNUFC would take a point on the day or perhaps even pull ahead, but Zardes was not to be denied. In the 83rd minute, Harrison Afful brought the ball up the right wing and played a low pass into Niko Hansen, who was toeing the offside line but stayed on just long enough to pick it up and serve it up to Zardes on the near post. Zardes completed his hat trick and put the home side up 3-2 with the game’s decisive goal.
“I don’t think, even when we went 2-0 down, we were ever out of the game,” said Heath. “I did say to the players at halftime that we can get something from this game. Once again, when you analyze it at the very end, we conceded three goals on the road again. The bottom line is you do not win many game conceding three on the road. It has been a problem for us all year. We have to take responsibility for that, or I do. It is something that needs to be addressed in the offseason. I think we have enough forward players that will cause people trouble. I believe that. But behind the ball at times we are our own worst enemy at times and that is a real frustration for me and the coaching staff and I think for the players.
“Overall, we are probably, I think, maybe four wins better than we’ve shown,” he added. “If we had of been, that would have put us in and around the playoffs and there may have been something for us to play for tonight. We still have a lot of work to do and we know that. We are, I think, a ‘nearly’ team at the minute. We are nearly good at a lot of things. We have to make sure we are good next year. If that means changing players and bringing other players in then that is what we have to do.”
Minnesota United FC Starting XI: GK Matt Lampson; D Eric Miller, Michael Boxall, Brent Kallman (Wyatt Omsberg 58’), Francisco Calvo; M Collin Martin, Rasmus Schuller, Fernando Bob; F Miguel Ibarra (Romario Ibarra 76’), Darwin Quintero, Angelo Rodriguez (Abu Danladi 45+1’)
MIN Unused Subs: GK Chris Konopka; D Jerome Thiesson; M Collen Warner, Ibson
Columbus Crew SC: GK Zack Steffen; D Gaston Sauro (Lalas Abubakar 67’), Harrison Afful, Josh Williams, Milton Valenzuela; M Artur, Federico Higuain (Patrick Mullins 75’), Justin Meram (Pedro Santos 60’), Niko Hansen, Wil Trapp; F Gyasi Zardes
CLB Unused Subs: GK Jon Kempin; M Hector Jimenez, Luis Argudo, Ricardo Clark
11’ – Zardes (Valenzuela, Higuain) – CLB
49’ – Zardes – CLB
68’ – Calvo (Quintero) – MIN
77’ – Calvo – MIN
83’ – Zardes (Hansen, Afful) – CLB