In a foul-weather match that seemed to be destined for a scoreless draw, Columbus sent a sparse Gillette crowd home in a foul mood after a game-winning goal off the head of Ghanian centerback Lalas Abubakar just before stoppage time for a 1-0 win over New England. Argentinian Frederico “Pipa” Higuain served up a delicious corner kick from the left flag in the 85th minute that found the high-rising University of Dayton product, who made no mistake with his blast that deflected off Revolution goalkeeper Matt Turner. The only goal of the match sent all three points back to Columbus with second-place Crew SC.
First-year manager Brad Friedel tinkered with his lineup yet again, partly out of necessity due to absences from injured Juan Agudelo and suspended Diego Fagundez. He also introduced a brand-new formation — a 3-5-2 — which probably also drove the squad changes. The three-man backline consisted of Andrew Farrell, Antonio Delamea, and Jalil Anibaba right-to-left. Rookie Brandon Bye and veteran Chris Tierney slotted in as right and left wing-backs, respectively, with a midfield of Kelyn Rowe, Scott Caldwell, and Luis Caicedo. Cristian Penilla and Teal Bunbury posted up as a two-forward pairing.
The Revs came decked out in a modified version of their red/white road kits with US flag-inspired numerals for “Salute to Heroes” night, while Crew SC donned their road yellows. The first half saw plenty of back-and-forth action but few decent chances. Bunbury had 2nd and 38th-minute shots on goal that were parried away by US International keeper Zack Steffen. Higuain fired a loose ball sitter in the box over the bar in the 9th minute. Moments later, Tierney blasted one right at Steffen. Abubakar drove a 31st-minute header from a corner straight into the ground, landing comfortably in Turner’s grasp. A minute after, he headed a Higuain free kick that was headed off the line by Farrell, who seconds later cleared an attempt by centerback Johnathan Mensah. Anibaba and Delamea each missed headed chances from corners, as well.
The second half saw more of the same, as both teams traded blows in a physical matchup that produced five yellow cards (four for the Revs) but many noncalls. Midfielder Wilfried Zahibo came on at halftime for Rowe and played what appeared to be a faux number ten role, being positioned higher and more centrally up the field than Kelyn had been. Bye had a blast from distance in the 58th minute that didn’t trouble Steffen. Neither did a 70th-minute free-kick from second-half substitute Claude Dielna (Delamea - head injury), whose dipping blast from midrange landed directly in the keeper’s stomach for a save. MLS Player of the Week Gyasi Zardes’ high-speed offering from the left in the 75th minute was palmed away by Turner.
The breakthrough finally came on Crew SC’s fifth corner of the match, as Abubakar — who led all players with three shots on goal — used his height advantage to pound home Higuain’s corner ball, giving Columbus a 1-0 lead. Shortly thereafter, Friedel used his final substitution, sending in forward Brian Wright for Caldwell as New England sought an equalizer. The Vermont product called for a penalty after going down in the box during stoppage time, but his plea fell on deaf ears. Anibaba had a couple chances in the dying minutes to grab the Revs’ first goal, but his weak header off a Tierney free kick followed by a shot wide of the left post were New England’s last gasps.
In a fairly evenly played match, the notable differences between these clubs were in possession and passing accuracy, as Columbus held a decided advantage in both areas. However, the primary difference may have come down to coaching/tactics. Friedel’s lineup and formation changes could be viewed as unsuccessful, especially considering these squads played to a 2-2 draw just four weeks ago using generally the same lineup and formation we’d seen all season. On the other hand, Crew SC skipper Gregg Berhalter — regarded as one of the better coaches in MLS — used the recent draw vs high-pressing New England to slightly alter his approach for this match. He instructed his team to build from the back per normal, but he also gave keeper Steffen the option to play over the top to midfield when the Revolution press created a higher risk. This resulted in fewer Crew SC turnovers in the final third, which limited the Revs’ attack. Instead, turnovers occurred further downfield, forcing New England to work with a longer field, not a preferred look.
The loss drops the Revolution to 5-4-2 on the season and 4-2-1 at Gillette. New England had only 2 losses at home in all of 2017. They remain in 6th place in the Eastern Conference with 17 points, just 3 points above the red line. Meanwhile, Columbus’ fourth straight shutout moves them within a point of first-place Atlanta United; however, the Five Stripes have two games in hand.
New England begins a stretch of 3 games in 8 days next weekend with a Saturday matinee at BC Place in Vancouver, British Columbia, to take on Kei Kamara and Whitecaps FC.