Last night was the unofficial start to the MLS season, as Real Salt Lake and Columbus faced off in their first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal. In a night that was below freezing and in front of a sparse crowd, the two teams grinded out a 0-0 draw that was defined by the referee as well as missed chances by Columbus.
The first half set the tone for the entire evening, as Columbus came out attacking and had their first chance in the first minute as the Crew attacked down the left side with Renteria crossing a pass into to Mendoza who couldn’t corral it for a shot. That sentence basically summarized the first half as Columbus controlled possession and attempted to create scoring chances, with most of them being thwarted by Real Salt Lake or being poorly executed. Columbus consistently attacked down the left, which is something they must have seen in film sessions as a possible weakness. RSL had two decent chances in the first ten minutes, but were content to sit back and play defense against a Crew team that is looking to replace some of their big name players this season. The only other thing to note from the first half was Tony Beltran’s hard tackle on Emmanuel Ekpo in the 43 minute, which resulted in the game’s first yellow card.
The first goal in the second half, I thought, would be monumental for momentum, for it would come as a result of Columbus domination of play or a back-breaking counter from RSL. Of course all this statistical analysis went out the window in the second half as referee Jair Marrufo decided to make his own impact on the match.
In the 52nd minute Tony Beltran was again carded for a rough tackle (this time on Fabian Espindola) and was sent off. The tackle, while hard, might have deserved a first yellow card but was not severe enough to warrant a game-changing second yellow card. By sending him off, Marrufo completely turned the match around. Now RSL would be trying to hang on to a scoreless draw for forty minutes, which undoubtedly led to a slower match.
The red cards were flashed again in the 70th minute when Emilio Renteria went down to the ground holding his head. At this point the CONCACAF television feed did a poor job of showing the post-whistle action, so for a few minutes the Fox Soccer crew and audience were left wondering what was going on. But once Nat Borchers and Emilio Renteria started walking to the tunnel, it became very clear: Marrufo had sent both players off with straight reds, and the game was reduced to a 10 on 9 contest. The commentators noted this could result in more wide-open and free-flowing play, but the exact opposite was the result: the game slowed to a halt as RSL understandably tried to run out the clock and escape without giving up a goal.
You’ll notice the second half analysis has very little talk of actual soccer, and that was because most of the half was similar to the first: RSL’s defense slowing down and stopping Columbus from having many good scoring chances. The Crew only finished with two shots on goal. Their best chance came late in the match when a Robbie Rogers free kick just missed the head of a wide-open Jeff Cunningham in front of the net, who would have easily scored the game’s only goal if he could have corralled the kick. Instead, we were destined for 0-0.
Now the quarterfinals shift to Real Salt Lake, and RSL has to be feeling confident about their chances to advance. Playing at home where a win of any score helps them advance gives them a leg-up, but their inability to score an away goal takes away that safety net they would have if Columbus can grab a goal at Rio Tinto; remember, the away goal rule is in effect. In terms of what this match told us about this team, it didn’t reveal much that we didn’t know. The RSL back line looks very good, and Rimando made saves when he had to. Espindola and Saborio had a limited role in attacking, but we should see more of them on Tuesday. A definite key to the return leg is how RSL can adjust without Borchers and Beltran, who are now both on red card suspension.
As for Columbus, Crew faithful have to be both heartened and disappointed by yesterday’s match. For a club that some thought were a lock to be in the bottom of the Eastern Conference, they hung with maybe the best team in MLS and looked like a pretty talented team. That being said, they couldn’t score and created very few quality chances at home, and are now firmly underdogs in the next leg of the Champions League quarterfinal. Plus they will be without Emilio Renteria, who before he was sent off looked to be the Man of the Match for Columbus.
What did you think about last night’s match?