By DAN KARELL
COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Columbus Crew added to their playoff portfolio on Saturday evening with a gritty victory against one of the Eastern Conference’s hottest teams.
Buoyed by a terrific Federico Higuain free-kick goal just minutes into the second half, the Crew held off the New England Revolution, 1-0, ending the Revolution’s five-game winning streak. The win keeps the Crew in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, above the Philadelphia Union and Toronto FC, who are hot on their tails.
The Revolution remain in third place in the standings, in front of the New York Red Bulls and Crew.
“It’s a fantastic win on a fantastic night,” Crew head coach Gregg Berhalter said. “I think it’s difficult for the other team to create chances when they don’t have the ball, or they have the ball in their half, (and) it becomes hard. I think we did a good job in the first half. After we scored, they came out with everything they had.”
Going up against one of the hottest clubs in MLS, the Crew came out of the locker room with a fire and intensity that hasn’t been seen in the first half in most games this season.
The Crew used the high pressure to their advantage, forcing turnovers in midfield and setting up quick counter attacking opportunities, with Tony Tchani and Higuain playing as providers. Right back Eric Gehrig also had an impressive first half, hitting the post with a header and providing some good service from the right side on overlapping runs.
In spite of the pressure, the Revolution had a couple of golden opportunities in the first half to get on the board. Playmaking midfielder Lee Nguyen found space in the 15th minute at the top of the box but his shot produced a diving stop from Crew goalkeeper Steve Clark.
Four minutes later, Diego Fagundez had space on the left side of the box but his shot towards the far post was blocked as well by Clark.
The Crew came out with the same energy in the second half, and needed only three minutes to score the game’s opening goal. After earning a free kick just outside the box, Crew Designated Player Federico Higuain lined up his shot and curled home a terrific 25-yard strike to the delight of the sold out crowd.
“He’s phenomenal, that free kick was great,” Berhalter said. “There’s not too many players in the league who can do that, and we’re lucky to have one of them.”
Revolution Designated Player Jermaine Jones came off the bench at the start of the second half, but never found his rhythm, instead spending more time arguing with the officials than helping his team tie the score.
“I put him in to change the game up,” Revolution head coach Jay Heaps said. “He obviously took a pretty nasty knock last week. We wanted to get him on the field but at the same time he wasn’t full speed at training all week. I thought went in and sure enough he gets kicked the time in. It’s a little bit disheartening.”
Though they went a goal down, the Revs were hardly able to create any chances moving forward as Wil Trapp and Tchani closed down the middle, in addition to centerbacks Michael Parkhurst and Tyson Wahl.
“I thought we kept them off the ball, we tried to close passing lanes as best as possible,” Trapp said. “Lee Nguyen, he’s a crafty midfielder and when he gets the ball in behind the defensive midfielders it’s a difficult day for us. I thought we did a good job of denying him the ball as well as just getting pressure on their centerbacks and making them having trouble playing out of the back.”
The Crew had a chance to put the game away in the 85th minute when Justin Meram was cut down in the penalty box by Revolution defender A.J. Soares. Higuain stepped up to the spot but stunningly missed the penalty kick.
As though it were karma for the missed opportunity, the Revolution had one final chance in the 88th minute to tie the score and bring a point back to Foxborough. A turnover in the Crew’s defensive third allowed Charlie Davies a chance to run one-on-one on goal. Davies fired a curling strike on goal that was somehow tipped around the post by Clark, saving the Crew’s blushes one final time.
“First of all, I was out of position because I was trying to give an option with my feet so I was just scrambling to get back and get set,” Clark said. “Once I felt it touch my hand and I looked back and could see it going wide, it was just a great feeling.
“I was just so happy that it was at the end, it was a big save, and I was just so happy to make it for the guys.”
The Crew honored club legend Frankie Hejduk at halftime, inducting him into the club’s “Ring of Honor.”
Here are the match highlights: