Anticipating a 4-2-3-1 similar to the one Gregg Berhalter had used in previous matches, Adrian Heath opted for a 3-5-2 designed to make best use of the personnel available to him — namely a single natural center back in Joe Greenspan. The former Midshipman was flanked by Jérôme Thiesson and Justin Davis, with Kevin Venegas and Ismaila Jome the wing backs. Sam Cronin and Ibson formed the base of a midfield triangle, with Kevin Molino in the hole behind Christian Ramirez and Abu Danladi.
Unfortunately for Heath, Berhalter also opted to adjust his side’s shape, deploying his charges in a 3-4-3. Two notable attacking options were absent: Federico Higuaín (rested) was not a part of the gameday roster, and Justin Meram started the game on the bench.
Minnesota held nearly 60-percent possession in the game’s opening 15 minutes, but it provided its strike partnership of Ramirez and Danladi little support. Neither wing back — Venegas or Jome — took up advanced positions with much frequency. Whether that was an intentionally conservative approach to ease into the contest, or players finding their feet in new roles, the result was Ramirez and Danladi isolated up top. With Molino making very few touches in the attacking third, and no help from the flanks, the Loons were unable to convert early possession into scoring chances.
Additionally, the Loons’ wing backs often dropped to form a flat back five when defending in their own half. Such cautious play held Columbus to one shot on target in the first half, but limited the Loons to half-chances as they went in search of their first goal.
The pairing of Minnesota’s back three with Columbus’ front three often left the 6-foot-6 Greenspan man-marking Crew SC forwards.
“[I]t was [Greenspan’s] first MLS start, but people don’t realize Joe has hardly trained because of the concussion for maybe three-and-a-half weeks,” said Heath. “I thought he put a really good shift in. He’s exhausted in there, and well he might be.”
Putting Greenspan to the test in the 22nd minute was Columbus winger Ethan Finlay. The ball was sent long in transition following a United turnover, and Finlay found himself in a footrace with Greenspan. The center back just managed to catch up to Finlay, delaying a shot until Thiesson could arrive to block Finlay’s effort as the winger cut back while dribbling inside the penalty area.
The Loons didn’t manage an even-man rush until the 25th minute of the first half. Jome managed to get past his mark as the Loons worked the ball out of the back, and played the ball into space for Molino as Minnesota broke three-on-three. Cutting in from the right flank, the Trinidadian international attempted to roll the ball across the face of goal, looking for Ramirez at the back post. With traffic in front of Columbus keeper Zack Steffen, Molino might have done better to pick out Danladi at the top of the 18-yard box.
Minnesota looked the more likely team to score, producing a pair of half-chances from balls played over the top of Columbus’ back line.
Ibson swung a looping effort across field for Ramirez in the 28th minute, but the striker’s touch to take the ball out of the air ran a bit long and the ball was gathered by Crew SC.
Then in the 37th minute, Molino sought to play Ramirez in behind the Columbus defense. Ramirez was able to run onto the ball, but faced with a narrow angle, drove the resulting shot over the crossbar.
Danladi was removed late in the half, likely due to a yet-to-be-disclosed injury.
“The focus was on 0-0 ahead of halftime” said Berhalter. “Coming into the locker room at halftime, we achieved our objective.”
Seeking to remedy its offensive struggles from the first 45 minutes, Minnesota made adjustments at halftime and pushed Venegas and Jome further forward. The shift looked promising, but then a defensive lapse swung the game in Columbus’ favor.
Crew SC worked the ball out of their own half, and Wil Trap slipped a pass to Manneh as the winger made a short diagonal run escaping his mark, Cronin. Finding himself in a charitably large amount of space as no Loon stepped forward to challenge him, Manneh skipped a shot from outside the penalty area, beating Bobby Shuttleworth to the the far post.
Columbus led 1-0 on just its second shot on target of the evening.
Minnesota was left with little option but to chase the game over the final 30 minutes, and played with a shape closer to a 4-4-2, with Molino having joined Ramirez up top at the end of the first half. As the Loons pushed forward, they conceded a space in midfield, and the balance of quality scoring chances fell to Columbus.
The home crowd, sensing the urgency of the situation, began a chant of, “We want Batman!” in the 73rd minute, imploring Heath to sub in Miguel Ibarra.
Around the same time, Ibson led a counter attack up the right wing, fell to ground, and held his head in his hands while Columbus launched a counter of its own. The play was concluded at the other end of the field as striker Ola Kamara shot low and across goal, just outside Shuttleworth’s left post, and perhaps should have doubled Columbus’ lead.
In the 78th minute, second-half substitute Justin Meram received the ball in the Loons’ penalty area. His first effort was blocked by Davis, but the rebound returned his way before the 28-year-old squandered the opportunity by skying the ball over the crossbar.
Meram popped up again in the 81st, rolling a ball just wide of Shuttleworth’s left post from the top of the D.
Having been brought on in the 77th minute to an enthusiastic roar, Ibarra was able to test the left edge of Columbus’ defense late. In added time, the winger rounded his mark and had a number of teammates near the penalty spot as he approached the right edge of the 18-yard box. It looked like the Loons might be able to snatch a point at the death, but Ibarra got under his cross, and the ball sailed over a number of options in front of goal before the Loons were forced to gather and reset.
It was a disappointing night for Minnesota, and while it isn’t unfair to wonder how the game might have unfolded had Columbus not opened scoring in the 58th minute, the late chances squandered by Crew SC suggest the result wasn’t unfair to the Loons.
Heath differed slightly in his postgame assessment.
“I don’t think we deserved to lose it, but I certainly don’t think we did enough to win the game,” stated Heath. “I thought we started the second half very brightly. They got a goal against the run of play. They sort of took the wind out of our sails.”
It also bears keeping in mind Heath was forced to mix and match given the players available to him, after injuries and international call-ups reduced the options available to him.
As to why Ibarra started the game on the bench, with the less-experienced Jome perhaps in better graces with Heath, the Loons head coach was direct.
“Can’t pick and choose when we have that energy. Not just Miguel — that could have been three or four others, to put all that energy in at TCF Bank Stadium. Same three points on the road. Can’t pick and choose when you decide that you want to play full of energy. That’s non-negotiable.”
For Columbus, it marked Crew SC’s first clean sheet since the end of May.
“The thing about us is we play a certain way that will give up chances at times,” said Berhalter. “We don’t want to give up silly goals. We don’t want to give up easy goals.”
“When you talk about guys — [defenders] Lalas Abubakar, who made his debut, Alex Crognale who hasn’t played in a while, Josh Williams who we had to sub in — overall it was a collective effort, and I think that’s what feels good.”
Columbus Crew SC 1 – 0 Minnesota United FC
Stadium: TCF Bank Stadium
Kickoff: 6:00 p.m. (CDT)
Weather: 85°, Sunny
Kekuta Manneh (58’)
Ibson (9’, Unsporting Behavior)
Zack Steffen (90’+1’, Time Wasting)
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