Gyasi Zardes scored his sixth goal of the season to lead Columbus Crew to a 1-0 win over Philadelphia Union in a Wednesday night matchup at MAPRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.
Union head coach Jim Curtin made one change to the lineup that fell to Toronto FC Friday night, inserting Fabinho -- who was injured when the Crew came to Philadelphia earlier this season -- for Ray Gaddis at left back.
The biggest lineup news, however, was Federico Higuain's absence from the Columbus first eleven. The Argentinian playmaker started on the bench after completing a grueling 90 minutes down a man against Seattle over the weekend. In Higuain's place, Gregg Berhalter handed 2018 third round SuperDraft pick Luis Argudo his first MLS start.
The opening half was cagey, and both sides struggled to penetrate through a crowded midfield. The Union successfully limited midfielder Wil Trapp's influence on the match but could not find their own creative players in enough space to exploit gaps in Columbus' strong defense.
As a result, neither team generated a shot from open play during the opening 45 minutes. Haris Medunjanin's sneaky free kick -- which may have been intended as a pass to Borek Dockal -- in the 23rd minute caught Columbus goalie Zack Steffen sleeping, but the Union academy product recovered to corral the effort.
Columbus began wrestling control of the match from the visitors soon after, but the Union defense held firm and prevented the Crew from putting any shots on Andre Blake's goal. Harrison Afful came closest to breaking the deadlock in the 41st minute when he danced toward the box from the right flank and unleashed a curling effort that slammed into Blake's far post and bounced back into play.
Columbus came out with energy in the second frame, but left back Milton Valenzuela stuck to the night's theme when he put a 47th minute shot from the top left corner of the box over the goal. The Union began finding moments to counterattack behind the Crew's midfield, though they struggled to complete the aggressive passes needed to get through a defense that has only allowed nine shots per game at home.
With both attacks stuck in neutral, it was going to take a moment of good fortune for either side to collect three points. In the 53rd minute, Columbus' moment arrived and Gyasi Zardes turned in the winner from close range. A long, looping cross from the right forced Blake to palm the ball toward the left corner flag. Cristian Martinez, effervescent throughout the match, tracked down the loose ball and lashed a shot toward goal from a tight angle. Blake put a hand to it, but he could not change the ball's trajectory enough to prevent Zardes, lurking at the far post, from tapping it home. The goal was Zardes' sixth of the season and 40th regular season MLS goal.
Wil Trapp nearly doubled the home side's lead before the Union could recover and mount a comeback. The Columbus captain looked off substitute winger Marcus Epps after controlling the ball 30 yards from goal and unleashed a laserbeam of a shot that forced Blake to dive left and smother impressively.
Fafa Picault had come into the match with Epps near the hour mark, and he began running at defenders up the left flank. This aggression pushed the Crew's defense deep and created space in the box in the 64th minute. Bedoya isolated his defender on the right and played his pass behind Sapong and Picault in search of a late runner, but Columbus' compact defense snuffed out the half-chance.
Soon after, Sapong twisted his leg in a tackle with Valenzuela and remained down for some time. The striker returned to the match, but the break took the wind from the Union's sails and the Crew became ascendant once more. Higuain, who entered in the 59th minute, began finding gaps in Philly's defense and found himself with acres of space atop Blake's box in the 71st minute. After Zardes darted in from the left, his pass to Higuain in space was pushed wide to Argudo. Auston Trusty galloped across the box to make a flying block and prevent the Crew from doubling their lead.
In the final ten minutes, the Union generated two of their best chances. First, Picault drove into the box from the left, and in the ensuing chaos the ball bounced out to Borek Dockal. The Czech midfielder swung a heavy left foot and blasted a half-volley directly into Steffen's chest.
Then, in the 90th minute, Steffen made a far more impressive save when he threw himself to the ground to push away Sapong's shot from the top of the six-yard box. Medunjanin had drifted toward the far post, and he passed up a shot to slide the ball into Sapong's path through the center. The Union striker, laboring after another physical clash Lalas Abubakar, turned the ball toward goal, but he could only stare as Steffen's strong goalkeeping preserved all three points for the Crew.
The Union are in action again this Saturday when as they complete their three match road trip in Stade Saputo at 3pm ET against Montreal Impact.