Despite the rain and no goals scored from open play, Columbus Crew SC was able to grind out a complete 2-0 victory against D.C. United at RFK Stadium.
Without Designated Player and standout defender Jonathan Mensah due to a red card suspension from the week before against the Dynamo, Head Coach Gregg Berhalter brought out a new formation with Columbus in a 3-4-2-1 formation.
On the new formation, Berhalter said they had “been working on it since preseason. We want to have a way to play against teams that are very good at serving the ball in the penalty box.” On its effectiveness, Berhalter simply concluded, “We got a shutout and we won the game on the road.”
A driving factor of this win and success in the new formation, is due to the standout debut game from Homegrown Player and centre-back Alex Crognale. Signed in late December, he had the task of not only playing without Mensah by his side, but also of playing in a new formation with the rest of the team.
On his incredible debut performance, Crognale relayed, “Each and every guy on this team and all the coaches on the staff, they were confident in me and that gave me confidence. Knowing that I could get on the field and play with these guys, I took that mentality and did what I was told to do. I was able to win some balls in the air and help our team.”
Crognale’s strong performance began as early as four minutes into the game, when he pressed high on the field to collect a loose ball and prevent a counter attack, distributing the ball down the field. Seven minutes later, he challenged former University of Maryland teammate Patrick Mullins step for step and drove him away from goal to force a poor shot.
Crew SC displayed early and solid build-up play and attacking prowess, flooding the box with players to make dangerous shots 12 minutes and 15 minutes into the game, the most dangerous shot being the latter, coming from Justin Meram. Despite consistent attacks, D.C. United goalkeeper Bill Hamid was able to stop both from on and off his line.
A yellow card to Ian Harkes at the 16th minute slowed the game down, though this didn’t stop midfielder Artur from literally running circles around players and controlling the midfield for brief spells. Afful made a nice run down the field, breaking away from defenders at the 21st minute to make a cross which was just a little too ahead of striker Ola Kamara.
By the 25th minute, Patrick Mullins dropped to the ground during a breakaway due to an injured hamstring and had to be substituted for Jose Ortiz, a recent call-up to the Costa Rican National Team. Making a quick impact, Ortiz had a breakaway himself at the 31st minute but his ball was quickly stopped by Columbus’ defensive line.
D.C. United continued to pressure Columbus’ box until the 36th minute when Kamara drew a penalty against Steve Birnbaum during what looked to be a breakaway. Frederico Higuain took the penalty shot, burying it for the first goal of the game. On the run into the box and the goal, Kamara shared that “the first goal was very important in the first half… and the running in the box makes opportunities. Pipa took it well, it was a good goal.”
D.C. responded by pressing hard to equalize, but Crognale appeared unstoppable with his large frame and physical flexibility to seemingly bend around players to displace the ball, stopping dangerous attacks at both the 40th and 43rd minute.
The second half kicked off with a pair of unanswered crosses by both teams, eventually developing into a dangerous one on one shot from United’s Ortiz calmly stopped by Zach Steffen in the 49th minute. Producing several great one- on-one saves, Steffen said of his performance commanding a three-man backline that it’s different from what he’s used to, in that when there’s four in the back, “We have more back there willing to fight, an extra center back will help us,” but that the three-man line “played outstanding tonight.”
A minute after Steffen’s save, Crognale again stopped a dangerous attack, this time against D.C.’s Patrick Nyarko, known for his dangerous turns inside the box. Continuing his great first half, Crognale had an equally impressive second half using his long legs to surprise Nyarko during one of his signature turns to dispossess him and get the ball back into the Crew SC midfield.
A 50th minute free kick by Raitala proved dangerous, though Hamid quickly stopped that attack. D.C. didn’t hold the ball for long, as Artur continued to hold the ball and manipulate the midfield until a bad give-away led to another United shot expertly saved by Steffen.
At the 62nd minute, Justin Meram was substituted for Ethan Finlay, an offensive threat and one of the few goal scorers from this season.
Another Birnbaum blunder in the box during a Kamara run led to a penalty shot, which Kamara took and buried in the 65th minute. It’s worth noting that Hamid dived correctly for each penalty shot, but both were taken so well, that they were simply un-saveable.
At the 69th minute, Artur went down to what appeared to be an ankle injury and was replaced by Mohammed Abu.
No more than a minute later, Steffen made another incredible to save to keep the game scoreless for the home team.
The final substitution for Columbus came at the 80th minute, with the two-time penalty drawer and goal scorer Kamara taken off for Adam Jahn.
A 91st minute save by Steffen and 93rd minute stop by Finlay gave Columbus SC Crew its first shutout of the season and allowed the game to end with a victory for the visitors, final score 2-0.