Photo by Jane Gershovich/JaneG. Photography
By JASON MITCHELL
SEATTLE – The Columbus Crew came into Saturday’s match riding the first 2-0 start in franchise history. But a road game against the Seattle Sounders promised to provide a much stiffer test than the Philadelphia Union at home or D.C. United on the road.
With the match tied 1-1 in the 94th and final minute of stoppage time, 89th-minute substitute Justin Meram stepped into a Federico Higuain corner kick and buried a 17-yard shot into the far corner of the net for the 2-1 win.
“This is my coaching tip,” quipped Crew head coach Gregg Berhalter after the match. “Before he was going in, I told him to score a goal.”
The goal stunned the CenturyLink crowd of 38,469 and gave a rejuvenated franchise a 3-0 start to the 2014 season.
The Sounders played the final 36 minutes with 10 men.
Higuain tied the match on a 58th minute penalty kick that followed the ejection of defender Djimi Traore. Referee Allen Chapman awarded the penalty and issued Traore the straight red card after the defender took down Dominic Oduro in the penalty area.
Higuain buried the ensuing penalty kick into the top-right corner for his third goal of the season.
The Sounders (2-2-0) opened the scoring in a wide-open first half that saw the Crew frequently on their heels and fortunate not to be down more than 1-0 at the break.
In the 22nd minute, Obafemi Martins collected a bad midfield turnover and flicked Kenny Cooper into acres of space. Cooper charged into the penalty area and buried a shot into the far netting for the 1-0 lead and his first goal as a Sounder.
“We did what we thought we’d be able to do,” said Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid. “We knew that they like to spread the field and they spread their players on the field. When you can intercept passes you can get at them pretty quickly and the flank areas are open because their outside backs are up so high, and obviously we got the goal off that kind of play.”
Lamar Neagle tested Steve Clark repeatedly in the first half, but the goalkeeper kept his team in the match with save after save. At one point Clark denied Neagle three times between the 19th and 21st minutes.
But Clark’s biggest save of all probably came in the 39th minute, when he charged to the top of the 6-yard box and dove to deflect a left-footed Neagle shot from 12 yards out.
“I was just trying to make myself big, see the ball,” Clark said. “I’m quite a good shot-stopper, so that played to my strengths. It was nice to make the save.”
“He’s a fighter,” said Berhalter about his goalkeeper. “He’s a guy that relishes these chances. He came up big.”
Berhalter also suggested a difficult first half wasn’t necessarily a surprise.
“We wanted to try to play,” said the first-year head coach. “We wanted to play our game, and we knew it was going to be tough.”
The Crew were much more balanced in the second half, controlling possession, nearly finding the back of the net on multiple occasions, and putting a stop to a seemingly endless stream of first-half Seattle counters.
Neagle, for his part, was left lamenting missed opportunities.
“If I put some of those chances away, (and) I had plenty, then it’s a completely different story,” Neagle said. “The game is deflated, they’re out of it, they’re away from home, and we’re up two, three goals.”
For the Crew, the win offers hope that Berhalter and new owner Anthony Precourt have put one of the league’s flagship franchises thoroughly back in the mix.
“We just want to play our game,” said Clark, “and we don’t really care who we’re playing.”
Looking forward, both teams are back in action on Saturday. The Crew host Toronto FC, while the Sounders head to Portland to face the Timbers.
Here are the match highlights: