A first-half goal onslaught pushed Columbus Crew SC past longtime foes D.C. United by a score of 3-1 on Saturday evening in Columbus. Defender Milton Valenzuela and midfielders Ricardo Clark and Pedro Santos all scored their first career goals for the Black & Gold to keep Columbus undefeated on the year and in its past 14 matches.
In the 20th minute, Valenzuela gathered a deflected ball in the box and slotted it home between three D.C. United players, including goalkeeper David Ousted, to take a 1-0 lead. Midfielders Artur and Cristian Martinez were credited with assists after a masterful two-man game provided the ball to Valenzuela.
The 19-year-old Young Designated Player scored in just his fourth game with the Black & Gold. Acquired on loan with an option to buy from Newell’s Old Boys of Argentina, Valenzuela also netted an assist in Crew SC’s home opener.
“It was a great desire to get inside the box and put pressure on the opponent,” Crew SC Head coach Gregg Berhalter said of Valenzuela’s goal.
D.C. United struck back in the 30th minute when the visitors out ran and outnumbered Columbus. Midfielder Luciano Acosta found Yamil Asad at the top of the box, where he picked his spot and fired past Crew SC goalkeeper Jon Kempin to knot the game up at 1-1.
A corner kick was responsible for Clark’s goal in the 40th minute. His head was on the receiving end of a ball from midfielder Federico Higuain, where it was redirected and floated into the back of the net. The assist was historic for Higuain, as it allowed him to become the first member of Crew SC to accumulate 50 goals and 50 assists.
Just two short minutes later, a rolling cross from Martinez led to a rocket of a score from Santos. Higuain was credited with yet another assist after sending a long ball to Martinez. The two-minute span gave the Black & Gold a crucial cushion.
“I think it was more of a willingness to get inside their penalty box,” Berhalter said. “When you see the movement of our guys, the numbers we had in the penalty box I thought were excellent. And we emphasized that this week in training, so it’s good to see that pay off and it’s good to see guys making that extra effort to get inside the penalty box.”
Crew SC was without a pair of stalwarts for the evening home match. Captain midfielder Wil Trapp and goalkeeper Zack Steffen were pulled away from the team due to call-ups from the U.S. Men’s National Team for a match against Paraguay on March 27. The two had been a part of the Black & Gold lineup for 37 consecutive matchups before Saturday.
Trapp was replaced by a cool hand in the veteran Clark while Kempin filled in for Steffen in goal. Both were acquired in the offseason, Clark being signed as a free agent from the Houston Dynamo on Feb. 2 and Kempin coming in a trade with the LA Galaxy on Dec. 13. Higuain wore the arm band in Trapp’s absence.
There was an uncertainty about Crew SC’s midfield situation without Trapp. Artur added an offensive threat while Clark filled in comfortably winning balls for the captain after a tough choice in depth was made by Berhalter.
“We knew it was going to look a little different without Wil,” Berhalter said. “We had [midfielder Mohammed Abu] as an option and in the end we went with Ricardo because he’s been working really hard and had a really good preseason. It was a really difficult choice, but in the end we opted for that presence in the midfield.”
Dating back to last season, Crew SC now owns a record of 9-0-5 in its past 14 games, outscoring opponents 27-13 in regular season contests.
The match was attended by just 8,443 fans at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus. The number was likely hampered by the near-freezing temperatures and the fact that the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets, in the midst of a winning streak, played simultaneously with Crew SC just miles away. Historically, March matches have not been successful in terms of attendance for the Black & Gold.
The meeting was the 67th between the MLS-original teams. Columbus (3-0-1, 10 points) now owns a 29-27-11 all-time record with D.C. (0-2-2, 2 points).
Crew SC overwhelmed D.C. United on the offensive end, recording more shots (14-6), shots on target (7-2) and shots off target (6-3) in the contest. Over 54 percent of the possession battle belonged to Columbus.
The Black & Gold will remain at home as Vancouver Whitecaps FC comes to Columbus next Saturday, March 31, for a 3 p.m. kickoff.