Fortune smiled on home side late for a huge win.The Crew have largely been unlucky in their attack so far in this season. They've seen their touch abandon them near the box, which has been a large part of their struggles up to this point. But after rookie defender Rich Balchan scored in stoppage time Saturday against New York, you could feel that a turning point was upcoming. That turning point may be a lucky deflection by Salt Lake defender Chris Schuler, whose outstretched leg turned a hopeful Josh Gardner effort into his first ever goal for the Crew, and that proved to be the difference on a hot day in Columbus.
The Crew's recent habit of conceding early goals cost them again, as the towering Jamison Olave scored off of a corner kick in the seventh minute. The center half overpowered his marker, Emmanuel Ekpo, and got just enough of his boot onto the Nelson Gonzalez delivery to guide it past William Hesmer.
Real Salt Lake is normally a tidy team in possession, but injuries and absences may have contributed to its sloppier than normal play. The Crew were able to force turnovers at a worrying rate for the visitors, and they were nearly punished on 12 minutes.
The lively Emmanuel Ekpo, looking to redeem himself after getting beat for the goal, crossed towards Andres Mendoza, who just got a touch on it. The ball bounced around before falling to Eddie Gaven, and the midfielder unleashed a left foot volley that was a little too close for comfort for Nick Rimando, who was able to play for Salt Lake despite being called up for the Gold Cup.
The Crew came even closer off another Salt Lake turnover as this time the terrier-like Rich Balchan charged down the middle after collecting a wayward pass. The rookie found Ekpo out wide, and his cross found a completely unmarked Jeff Cunningham not far from goal, but the veteran could not find his touch, and his chance to join Jaime Moreno on 133 MLS goals went by the wayside.
Andres Mendoza is the most polarizing figure for the Crew. His ability is unquestioned, but it sometimes appears that he would rather be elsewhere. This was on display on the half hour mark, when the Peruvian DP dove in the box after a quick break by the Crew. There was minimal contact, and there was little chance of getting the penalty, and even Mendoza's attempt to win the PK looked half speed.
For most of the first half the Crew were relegated to long shots from outside of the box, as the usually compact Salt Lake defense was frustrating the home side. Nick Rimando had little to do in the first stanza, and other than collecting a couple of corners and crosses, the US international was untroubled.
The same could also be said about his opposite number William Hesmer, but the keeper was alert when a lightning counter by Salt Lake striker Fabian Espindola was played into space, but his tight angle shot from the near side was saved by Hesmer, who had his angles spot on. It was a good save by Hesmer to keep the Crew down just one right before half time.
The Crew rolled the dice at halftime, as the disappointing Kevin Burns was replaced by forward Justin Meram, who has impressed in his limited action. For a team and a coach under fire, it was a positive sign.
The Crew came inches away from their first set piece goal of the season as Jeff Cunningham found just enough space off a Gaven corner to direct a header on frame, but in a cruel bit of fortune the ball hit where the bar and post meet to keep the visitors in the lead after the hour mark. Rimando was beaten, but it seemed like the ball just wouldn't bounce the Black and Yellow's way.
With around a quarter of an hour to go, the Crew were handed a opportunity to level the score as Jamison Olave brought down Justin Meram in the box when it looked like the center half was beaten by a nice bit of skill by Meram. The buzz in the stadium began to build has it was assumed that Jeff Cunningham would take the spot kick, but after a verbal exchange between Cunningham and Mendoza, the DP won out, and made no mistake about his kick, smashing the ball just under the crossbar down the middle.
Five minutes later fortune smiled on the Crew, as the in form Peruvian found Josh Gardner on the charge down the center, although perhaps the strikers pass was meant for Eddie Gaven, and from about 25 yards the defender fired the ball toward goal. Nick Rimando appeared to have the ball covered, but from just outside the area center half Chris Schuler stuck his leg out, and the ball deflected off of his leg and found the back off the net past a helpless Rimando. A bad break for the visitors, whose defense has been stellar until the first goal.
Late on for the Crew defender Andy Iro was brought on to help secure the three points, and just before the four added minutes were up, home grown forward Aaron Horton was handed his MLS debut replacing Jeff Cunningham, who will feel that he could have had at least one goal on this night.
But the play of the night was made deep into stoppage time, as the visitors pushed numbers forward to find a equalizer. Deep in Crew territory, full back Robbie Russell's long throw was met by the right foot of his defensive mate Tony Beltran, and the ball looked for all the world like sneaking inside the post for a goal, but William Hesmer made a miraculous reflex save to deny the fullback.
Salt Lake had a couple corners off that save to try and get a point, and when the full time whistle blew the relief in the stadium was palpable. It was not the best performance of the season by either side, but the Crew came away with the maximum and can look forward to Sunday's match against Chicago with the hope of gaining six points in five days.
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