Yes, the Columbus Crew drew the New York Red Bulls 1-1 on Saturday.
But that wasn’t the story.
That there was even a game at MAPFRE Stadium, in front of 17,931 beleaguered supporters, was the evening’s big headline. It’s a story that had been played out over the many months since former Crew owner and Art Modell-wannabe, Anthony Precourt, announced his intention to move the Columbus Crew to Austin, Texas.
That the #savethecrew movement actually succeeded, and that the Columbus Crew still exist, was and will remain the headline to the Crew’s 2019 season.
Now About the Game…
On Saturday evening, the “saved” Crew played to a 1-1 draw against a New York Red Bulls side thatbrought new meaning to term “squad rotation.”
Saturday marked the debut behind the Crew bench of Caleb Porter, replacing Gregg Berhalter, the new USMNT coach. Porter, of course, made his name as a coach in the college ranks with the Akron Zips, before going pro with the Portland Timbers, who he led to the 2015 MLS Cup Championship.
So, with something of a local hero in Porter leading a team that most believed was gone for good, the Crew figure to get something of a free pass this season from their grateful fans as they await a promised new stadium from new owners, Dee and Jimmy Haslam of the Cleveland Browns.
No such latitude will be afforded the New York Red Bulls, who are still searching for a first MLS Cup Championship as the former MetroStars and MLS originals entered season 24. The Red Bulls enter the season as second favorites to do so, priced at +550 on BetStars NJ in 2019 MLS Cup Futures.
That lack of an MLS Cup has haunted the franchise, despite pains taken by all associated with the club to point out three Supporters Shields earned as the best regular season team in the league, the most recent of which came last season, only to be followed by yet another playoff elimination.
That last year’s playoff campaign ended in the conference finals to eventual champions Atlanta United must gall as much it encourages.
On Saturday’s season opener, Chris Armas, in his first full season in the top job after replacing Jesse Marsch midway through 2018, had a chance to test his team’s much-touted depth. Armas rested virtually his entire team ahead of Tuesday’s CONCACAF Champions League encounter with Mexican powerhouse Santos Laguna.
Of his regular starting 11, Armas started just three versus Columbus. He even went so far as to leave star striker Bradley Wright-Phillips back in New Jersey to prepare for Tuesday’s home game, lest he be tempted to use him. Only goalkeeper Luis Robles, and defenders Aaron Long and Michael Murillo began the match for New York, with Armas swapping out Long for his usual defense partner Tim Parker after halftime.
Armas handed regular season MLS debuts to Homegrown attacker Omir Fernandez, who started, and defender Sean Nealis, who was selected in the second round of the 2019 MLS SuperDraft. Nealis showed deserving of the selection as he solidified the defense in a strong second half shift.
The Bulls benefitted from an early lead with Andreas Ivan slipping away from defender Harrison Afful to nod home a perfectly weighted cross from Florian Valot in the sixth minute.
Despite playing with what could generously be called a “B” team, Armas sent his young side out to play “Red Bulls soccer,” with the Bulls eschewing a more passive style in favor of the teams usual, pressing system.
Columbus tested that strategy before breaking through with a deserved 41st-minute equalizer off the head of Gaston Sauro who slipped in front of Murillo to head home a corner kick from Columbus maestro Federico Higuain. With Higuain pulling the strings, the Crew had the young Red Bulls scrambling. Robles was up to the challenge though, making a superb double save at the death from Afful and then Gyasi Zardes, no doubt frustrating the home fans who braved the cold Columbus night.
Now New York turns its attention to Santos Laguna and the CCL, a competition that an MLS team has never won in its current format. Columbus gear up for a trip to face the New England Revolution in MLS play next Saturday.