The Union’s quest for their first-ever trophy will go down to the last game of the regular season, thanks to a 2-1 loss at Columbus on Sunday afternoon that showed just how much they missed injured goalkeeper Andre Blake.
Backup goalkeeper Joe Bendik was beaten badly on both goals, and while the Union took 22 shots — their second-highest total of the season, of which nine were on target — the only one that went in was Jamiro Monteiro’s 57th-minute penalty kick.
As snow fell and strong winds swirled around MAPFRE Stadium, Olivier Mbaizo had the Union’s best early chance to score after a lovely setup from Monteiro in the 29th minute. But Columbus goalkeeper Eloy Room, who made eight saves on the day, tipped the ball off his right post.
The Union (13-4-5, 44 points) held 54.5% of the possession and a 6-3 edge in shots when Columbus midfielder Artur put the Crew ahead with a low shot from 20 yards. Kai Wagner failed to close Artur down, and Bendik’s dive to the ground wasn’t quick enough.
It led to the Union trailing at halftime for the first time since their MLS tournament semifinal loss to Portland, a stretch of 16 games in just under three months.
The Union started the second half brightly, highlighted by Kacper Przybylko hitting the post from a shot through traffic in the 48th minute. Monteiro fired a shot off the top of Darlington Nagbe’s shoulder a minute later, and seconds after that Jack Elliott shot straight at Room. Wagner shot over the crossbar on a free kick in the 55th.
On the Union’s next foray down the field, they finally got the payoff. Jonathan Mensah tripped up Sergio Santos in the Crew’s 18-yard box, and referee Allen Chapman had an easy call to make for a penalty kick. Monteiro buried it to tie the score. It was the Union’s first goal in Columbus since Aug. 25, 2016, the date of the team’s last win there.
The Union kept coming. Room denied Santos from close range, causing Alejandro Bedoya to slam the turf in frustration. Santos flicked the ensuing corner kick on to Mark McKenzie, who was caught off-guard and shot wide. When the Crew (11-5-5, 38 points) finally got some sustained possession, manager Caleb Porter shouted repeatedly at his players to slow the game down.
At the other bench, Jim Curtin waited until the 70th minute to make his first substitution, sending in Cory Burke for Santos. Ilsinho replaced Brenden Aaronson in the 83rd.
Krisztián Németh replaced Gyasi Zardes for Columbus at the same time, and his first touch delivered the game-winning goal. Luis Díaz, another second-half substitute, lofted a cross from the right side that Bendik misjudged and Jakob Glesnes was late to, and Nemeth had an easy tap-in at the far post.
“We win as a team and we lose as a team,” said Curtin, who went to some lengths to avoid publicly criticizing Bendik, as is so often the case. “A lot of people could have done better, so we’re not going to point fingers — which is, I know, what you guys would love us to do.”
Room sealed the result with two outstanding saves, denying a Przybylko header in the 89th minute and an Elliott blast in the 92nd.
“We just needed to finish our chances in the game,” Monteiro said. “This is nothing on Joe … We have next week, another week, so we need to forget this one — not forget, but, learn from this game and bring it to the next weekend and score goals. And I’m pretty sure we will do that.”
This was just the Union’s fifth loss in 22 games across all competitions all year. After each of the previous three, they went on significant unbeaten runs: six games after the first, three after the second, five games after the third, and six games after the fourth.
“Those failures, we haven’t let define this team, and I don’t think it’s going to be any different going forward,” Bendik said.
He will play a bigger role than he likely bargained for in determining whether that proves true.