It was getting late Wednesday at Subaru Park, and the Columbus Crew were starting to turn the screws on the Union.
Manager Jim Curtin saw the telltale sign: Darlington Nagbe, Columbus’ quiet orchestrator, working the little passing triangles with Pedro Santos and Lucas Zelarayán that were a big part of the Crew’s run to last year’s MLS Cup title.
“Don’t waste your time trying to win the ball off of Nagbe,” Curtin told his players in the days before the game. “Don’t waste your time trying to steal the ball from him. Just make him give up the ball. Make him play the next pass so that somebody else is on it because he’s not going to lose it. You’re not going to take it off of him.”
Making matters worse, the Union were severely shorthanded. In addition to missing the absent José Andrés Martínez, Dániel Gázdag and Anthony Fontana, they were without Alejandro Bedoya, who had run out of gas and been subbed off in the 79th minute.
The midfield quartet was Leon Flach, Matt Real, 17-year-old rookie Quinn Sullivan, and Jamiro Monteiro.
But Curtin saw a sign that his players had what it took to hold on to the 1-0 lead. In the 94th minute, Zelarayán got on the ball on the sideline near Columbus’ bench. Sullivan marked him one-on-one, with late substitute Alvas Powell nearby and Kacper Przybylko tracking back to help.
Zelarayán tried to pull off some fancy footwork. Sullivan held his ground. Zelarayán decided to go in a straighter line forward and got past Sullivan. But when he did, he was surrounded by Flach, Monteiro, and Przybylko. Zelarayán was stripped of the ball. The Union passed it to safety, and soon thereafter the game ended.
» READ MORE: Jamiro Monteiro’s goal lifts Union past Crew, 1-0
“That just speaks to the mentality of the group,” Curtin said. “That as tired as they were at the very end of the game, they still stuck to things, and they still stuck to the plan.”
It wasn’t the most entertaining contest for a full-throated crowd of 16,234. But it was a win over an excellent team, and since it was Curtin’s birthday, perhaps the fan base will let him have this one. (Especially if it’s followed by a win Saturday at the woeful Chicago Fire, which lost at home Wednesday to just-as-woeful FC Cincinnati.)
“We have a great group of guys that really want to run for each other, and, you know, that’s why we really don’t give up a lot of goals,” goalkeeper Andre Blake said. “And we’re going to keep doing whatever we have to do.”
On the night as a whole, a ton of credit is due to the centerback tandem of Jakob Glesnes and Jack Elliott. The two have been terrific all season, and they held Zelarayán and Gyasi Zardes to zero shots. Zelarayán had zero chances created, and Zardes had just one.
Glesnes had six clearances, five duels won, and four recoveries. Elliott had nine clearances, five duels won, five recoveries, two tackles, and two interceptions.
“I love them. It’s a great pair, and they really complement each other.” Blake said. “And with my guidance in the back, they’re all humble. They listen. They take instructions very well, and they’re two very good players. So I just have to cover them up every now and again. But, you know, they know what to do, and they do their job very well every week.”
The Union have delivered five shutouts in their last seven games and are tied for second place in the Eastern Conference with Orlando City. If the back line keeps playing this well, the attacking reinforcements will come when Gázdag, Fontana, and Martínez return — and hopefully also Jack de Vries, who’s been sidelined for months with a concussion.
At that point, the Union might not have to win games 1-0. But it’ll do for now, especially as a 42nd birthday present for their manager.
» READ MORE: Union’s Jim Curtin earns two-year contract extension