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Crew Stun RSL To Move Into Top Three

The Columbus Crew have a knack for late game heroics recently.  This past weekend it was Rich Blachan grabbing a goal late in stoppage time to salvage a tie with the Red Bulls.  Last night it was a furious second half rally full of controversy that saw home fans booing the game-tying goal and Will Hesmer playing the hero late in stoppage time.  The 2-1 win by the Crew moves them into third in the Eastern Conference, while the loss casts doubt on Real Salt Lake’s place in the MLS Cup race.

This was the first match between the two teams since their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal match-up.  The scoring started early for the visitors when in the seventh minute they were awarded a corner kick.  The kick, taken by Nelson Gonzalez, was flicked past Hesmer by Jamison Olave for his first goal of the season.  Emmanuel Ekpo was the victim as he fell while trying to mark Olave and allowed the open shot.  It was the fourth time in six games, according to the MLS website, that the Crew have conceded a goal before the tenth minute of the game.

The Crew tried to equalize and had more chances throughout the first half and the beginning of the second.  The game changed in the 76th minute when Justin Meram was tripped in the box by Olave and the Crew were awarded a penalty.  What happened next can only be described as bizarre. Jeff Cunningham, who has struggled all season to score and was a goal behind Jaime Moreno for the all-time MLS goals record, had been designated by Robert Warzycha to take any penalties.  Despite this, Andrés Mendoza stepped up to take the kick and took the ball away from Cunningham.  Chad Marshall came over and tried to arbitrate, and then Cunningham, according to his account after the game, allowed Mendoza to convert the PK.  As relayed by Shawn Mitchell in Crew Xtra, Cunningham after the game said:

Usually I’m one and Mendoza’s two [for PKs]. But he felt very confident he’d score and sometimes you have to lead by example and be a servant. It’s like a child – sometimes they want to do something and you just have to let them. No hard feelings. It’s good for him. That goal is probably more important the club than it is for me.

Despite converting the penalty, some in the crowd booed Mendoza when he was subbed off in the 85th minute.  But the night would be full of cheers for the Crew faithful, as Josh Garner in the 82nd minute sent a shot from about 20 yards out that hit the thigh of RSL defender Chris Schuler and deflected past Nick Rimando for the second, and decisive, goal.   The Crew had to defend the lead fiercely however, as the visitors made one last push to equalize.  Three minutes into stoppage time Tony Beltran had a great chance on goal with a quick shot off a corner that forced William Hesmer to extend and make an incredible finger-tip save to preserve the tie.

The Crew move into third place in the Eastern Conference with the win and have built a three game winning streak.  But good luck guessing where this team is going.  After beginning the season with an incredible shutout streak, the club gave up three goals to Portland in their draw and has begun a nasty habit of allowing early goals.  Readers, feel free to share where you think the Crew are going because I am having a hard time figuring it out myself.

As for Real Salt Lake, this team is not looking like the favorites for the MLS Cup like many thought they would be this season.  While their depth has been severely tested by injury and national team call-ups, they seem to lack creativity in their attack.  Since losing to Monterrey they are 2-2-3, not exactly world beaters.  There is still time to turn it around, and they have a few games in hand over their opponents, but it may be time to worry about RSL this season.