Photo by USA Today Sports Images
By DAN KARELL
COLUMBUS, Ohio — With the Columbus Crew in need of a morale-boosting win, the team relied on one of their unsung heroes to secure victory.
Following a frustratingly scoreless first half, the Crew were lifted in the second half by a pair of Justin Meram goals and a Bernardo Anor header to defeat Chivas USA, 3-0, in the only meeting between the pair this season. It was the first multi-goal performance of Meram’s career, and the win vaulted the Crew into fourth place in the Eastern Conference standings, ahead of the fifth-placed Philadelphia Union.
“It was patience,” Crew head coach Gregg Berhalter said about what changed between the first and second halves. “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. We’ve been watching them, and they’ve been a tough team, save for that Seattle game, to break down, especially in the first half.
“We got the PK right before halftime, and it was unfortunate that we didn’t convert that, but we knew as the game went it would open up, they would get tired. I stressed at halftime, patience.”
Both teams entered the match missing key players, and it showed in the match as both teams were lacking their usual rhythm.
Chivas USA were coming off a 4-2 defeat at home last Wednesday and were without Erick “Cubo” Torres, Bobby Burling, and Osvaldo Minda due to suspensions. The Crew meanwhile were without central midfielders Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani due to yellow card accumulations.
A pretty uneventful opening 45 minutes was brought to life late in the half as the Crew began to pile on the pressure.
The Crew were rewarded in the 45th minute when forward Aaron Schoenfeld was pulled down in the box on a Crew corner kick, earning a penalty kick. But the chance was ultimately wasted as playmaker Federico Higuain missed his third penalty kick of the season, slamming his shot off the bar.
“I think, after not converting the penalty, the guys realized ‘we have to make a run at this, we have to invest a little bit more into this. Our runs need to be harder, our ball movement has to be quicker,’ and you could see that,” Berhalter said. “The guys were really putting a lot of energy into getting forward in the second half in a good way.”
The hosts came out in the second half with a better sense of purpose and energy, and just seven minutes in, they were able to capitalize. With Chivas USA sitting back in the 52nd minute, Meram cut in from the left to his favorite position at the top of the box, lined up his shot, and curled a beauty past Chivas USA goalkeeper Dan Kennedy for the game’s opening goal.
“When Waylon played me the ball, I took a touch, I wanted to serve it and no one stepped (up),” Meram said. “I figured, let me take another touch, and I took another touch and that was my spot, and I let it go.”
Another seven minutes later, Meram hit Chivas USA again on the counter attack. A poor pass by the visitors was stolen by Meram, and the 25-year-old dribbled towards the Chivas USA goal before firing a low strike that evaded Kennedy for the Crew’s second goal.
The goals give Meram five finishes in his last five games, making him one of the team, and league’s, hottest performers in the past month. “Its just comfortable,” Meram said.
Chivas USA substitute Marvin Chavez nearly put the visitors on the board in the 59th minute with a shot that whistled beyond the far post, but it was the Crew that put the icing on the cake in the 80th minute.
The substitute Anor, who was making his return from a hamstring injury, was given a perfect pass in the box from the feet of Hector Jimenez. With a perfectly-timed leap, Anor powered a header towards the near post. Kennedy made the initial save but his momentum took the ball across the line, giving the Crew a 3-0 lead.
“It was great that we were able to give him those extended minutes today,” Berhalter said about Anor. “We want to get him back, we want to get him in form, especially as we finish up the season. I think its really important just to have options, it pushes everyone a little harder.”
Playing their third game in seven days, Chivas USA head coach Wilmer Cabrera was realistic and level headed regarding the team’s performance, as they faltered down the stretch.
“I think the guys suffered in the second half,” Cabrera said. “The first half as tough, we played even, we controlled the attacking from the Crew very well, but in the second half we had guys running around, we paid the price and we gave them too much of a threat. We tried tot take risks and when you try to take risks, you have to be able to deal with crisis in the back and we didn’t have very good answers in terms of attack.”
The win kept the Crew alive in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt, but it also marked the final match against a Western Conference opponent. From here on out until the final weekend of the season, every match the Crew play will be against a team in conference, including many who are battling alongside them for the final playoff places that are still up for grabs.
“Now it gets interesting, now it’s the fun part of it,” Berhalter said about the final stretch of the season. “We worked hard to get ourselves in this position and these are big games. We have seven “six-point” games coming up. I’m excited, and I think the guys are excited and looking forward to it.”