Federico Higuain scored twice, for the second game in a row, as the Columbus Crew won back to back games for the first time this season on Saturday night. Their 2-0 victory over Toronto FC also hands the season series, and the Trillium Cup that goes with it, to Columbus.
Playing one of the few teams below them in the standings, Saturday's game was definitely one that the Crew needed to win. It was also the sort of game that the team has found a way to lose all too often this season. Home losses to Chicago and New England earlier this year may yet come back to haunt this group.
On this night, however, the Crew scored early and defended well enough throughout to earn three much-needed points. Higuain scored the game's first goal, slamming home a rebound after Bernardo Anor had two shots blocked or saved early in the first half. Dominic Oduro and Jairo Arrieta also had chances to put their name on the scoresheet as the duo proved a constant thorn in the Toronto defense.
Yet this was not a statistically dominant performance. The possession charts published by the league showed a fairly even split between Columbus and Toronto, with the teams splitting ten corner kicks equally.
The difference between the teams showed instead in their finishing. Where the Crew created a number of scoring chances that went awry at the last moment, as in the 61st minute when Oduro had the ball unluckily skip off his knee on a breakaway, the Toronto attack broke down frequently in the build-up. Robert Earnshaw and Jeremy Brockie were forced to pull back into midfield, or drift wide into the channels, to pick up the ball - and there was precious little offensive support from Jonathan Osorio or Matias Laba.
What will be remembered from this game, however, will not be the newly-resilient Columbus back line, or the emerging presence of Wil Trapp at defensive midfield. The lasting image will instead by Higuain's second goal in the 67th minute (see sidebar).
A week after the Argentine playmaker scored the league's goal of the week on a chipped shot over Luis Robles (a play that was dissected in detail by Greg Lalas), Higuain struck again. This goal was, if possible, more impressive - taken in less space, with much less margin for error. Higuain stood in a crowd just outside the penalty area, near the centerline of the field. With no apparent options for a pass, Higuain produced the sort of goal that called to mind the best of past playmakers such as John Wilmar Perez and Guillermo Barros Schelotto.
With the victory, the Crew improve to 29 points from 24 games played. Because of results elsewhere around the league, however, they remain seven points out of playoff contention, three positions behind the Houston Dynamo. Additionally, two of the three teams they must overtake - Houston and Chicago - have played one less game than has Columbus.
The Crew will have their next opportunity to claw back into contention this coming weekend. Three of their next five games will come on the road; a trip to Salt Lake City next weekend will be followed by a pair of home games against Seattle and Houston, with trips to Kansas City and Montreal coming in mid September.
Saturday's game attracted a crowd of more than 16,000 fans to Crew Stadium. That figure, while short of the near-sellout crowds that packed the stadium during the height of the summer, was still the biggest crowd for a showdown against Toronto, and increased the season average to 15,249. This figure is higher than the team has seen at this stage of any season since 2004. Each of the last six home games have drawn more than 15,000 fans.
Timeline of events
9' Corner kick, Toronto (right side - headed clear at back post)
10' Corner kick, Columbus (left side - punched clear)
19' 1-0 Federico Higuain (unassisted)
20' Corner kick, Toronto (left side - easily cleared)
32' Corner kick, Toronto (right side - punched then caught)
35' Corner kick, Columbus (right side - headed clear)
36' Caution, Richard Eckersley (obstruction on Justin Meram)
37' Corner kick, Toronto (left side - headed clear)
39' Corner kick, Columbus (right side - headed wide by Viana)
50' Caution, Wil Trapp (professional foul on Ashtone Morgan)
55' Reggie Lambe replaces Alvaro Rey
65' Maximiliano Urruti replaces Robert Earnshaw
66' Danny O'Rourke replaces Justin Meram
67' 2-0 Federico Higuain (Danny O'Rourke)
79' Jeremy Hall replaces Matias Laba
80' Corner kick, Columbus (left side - punched clear by Bendik)
80' Caution, Danny O'Rourke (dangerous play on Jonathan Osorio)
82' Ethan Finlay replaces Jairo Arrieta
84' Corner kick, Toronto (left side - cleared)
87' Corner kick, Columbus (right side - headed clear)
90' Konrad Warzycha replaces Federico Higuain
Matt Lampson, Chad Barson, Chad Marshall, Josh Williams, Agustin Viana, Wil Trapp, Dominic Oduro, Bernardo Anor, Justin Meram (Danny O'Rourke 66'), Federico Higuain (Konrad Warzycha 90'), Jairo Arrieta (Ethan Finlay 82')
Daniel Withrow, Kevan George, Ben Speas, Ryan Finley
Joe Bendik, Ashtone Morgan, Doneil Henry, Steven Caldwell, Richard Eckersley, Bobby Convey, Matias Laba (Jeremy Hall 79'), Jonathan Osorio, Alvaro Rey (Reggie Lambe 55'), Robert Earnshaw (Maximiliano Urruti 65'), Jeremy Brockie
Stefan Frei, Jonas Elmer, Gale Agbossoumonde, Andrew Wiedeman