Cincinati FC

Columbus Crew | Without Lucas Zelarayan, key players had top performances in win over FC Cincinnati

Tuesday

                        Sep 8, 2020 at 5:30 AM

Crew coach Caleb Porter said after each of the first two games in this first phase of Major League Soccer’s 18-game schedule that the offense wasn’t poor, but it didn’t function quite right without Lucas Zelarayan directing the attack.

After being held scoreless by FC Cincinnati in its previous matchup with Zelarayan in the lineup, it was questionable whether the Crew could score without the designated player on Sunday night after he suffered a minor injury in training.

However, the Crew responded to Zelarayan’s absence by playing its best offensive game of the year and suppressing doubts about its offense regressing.

Pedro Santos, Luis Diaz and Darlington Nagbe had arguably their top games this season en route to a 3-0 win at Mapfre Stadium. The Crew is atop the Eastern Conference through 10 games with a 7-1-2 record (23 points), five points clear of second-place Philadelphia Union and Toronto FC.

“I think it’s a real credit to the belief that I think everyone around this club has in our team and our players that they were not happy we weren’t scoring,” Porter said after the match. “I think it shows everybody’s standard is raised, our standard is raised. For us to not score for two games and it becomes this huge deal, I wasn’t worried.”

The Crew registered its highest expected goals value of the year at 3.45, according to the analytics website Opta, and led in shots 18-6 without allowing a shot on goal.

Diaz came off the bench for Youness Mokhtar at halftime and added pace to the Crew’s attack. His assist to Santos for the opening goal in the 52nd minute was the result of Diaz beating Cincinnati midfielder Greg Garza down the right flank and crossing a ball near the end line back through the middle of the box.

Diaz also was dynamic in one-on-one situations. His best chance came in the 86th minute when he put a move on Cincinnati defender Andrew Gutman and forced goalkeeper Przemyslaw Tyton to make a save.

Santos’ first goal of the season seemed to ignite his confidence. In the 64th minute, two minutes after Gyasi Zardes replaced Fanendo Adi, Santos delivered a cross from the top left corner of the box to Zardes at the near post that was redirected into the net.

Diaz and Santos had yet to find their form that existed last season during the Crew’s 5-2-6 run to end the season. It’s important for both to play well when Zelarayan isn’t available.

“Always when we score we feel more comfortable and more confident, too,” Santos said. “And today, I felt confidence, and I think I showed it in the game.

Nagbe, filling in for Zelarayan — whom Porter said would be fine but didn’t specify the injury — performed as expected. He was quick and efficient in his passing and incredibly difficult to dispossess. He completed all 41 of his passes.

“He can work in tight spaces, and they had really no answer for him,” Porter said, “and that’s what we hoped he would show.”.

Zardes also had probably his most efficient match of his time with the Crew, scoring twice in less than 10 minutes.

The Crew will certainly be tested by better teams than Cincinnati. But it’s a testament to Porter and the Crew for having a memorable offensive performance without their top playmaker, and only a week after being shut out by the same team.

“I think the players, if you ask them, we can still be better,” Porter said. “We’re just scratching the surface of the team we can be, want to be and need to be if we want to accomplish our goals.”

jmyers@dispatch.com

@_jcmyers

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