A third-minute opportunity for Miguel Berry with his back to goal inside the 6-yard box, and a fifth-minute shot in front of an open net yielded nothing for the Crew on Saturday against D.C. United.
The scene was almost a carbon copy of last week’s scoreless draw against Sporting Kansas City. Until it wasn’t.
Crew left back Pedro Santos put his laces through a free kick from about 22 yards out in the 28th minute and gave the Crew their first goal in an MLS game since March 20, and their first 1-0 lead since the season opener on Feb. 26. Before the half was over, Derrick Etienne Jr. finished inside the box to widen the lead in an eventual 3-0 win over D.C. United in front of 19,402 at Lower.com Field.
Once the final whistle sounded, the Nordecke supporters' section let off canisters of yellow smoke and chanted their city's name with pride for the first time since March 12.
One goal, one result could change things. That had been the MO for the Crew (3-3-3, 12 points) in their attempt to end a five-game winless streak in which they’ve failed to score a goal in 360 minutes of league play.
While scoring consistently will continue to be an emphasis in the coming weeks, coach Caleb Porter and the entire club can take a sigh of relief.
"It's been a rough couple weeks in many ways," Porter said. "For our group to stick together, keep fighting and we're back in the race, we're back in the thick of things. I'm glad they get the reward with the result and some goals for their hard work and for sticking together."
The Crew were a bit fortunate not to be down a goal. D.C. United forward Ola Kamara had a shot come squarely off the post and into the arms of goalkeeper Eloy Room. Eight minutes later, James Igbekeme drew a foul close to the top of the box to set up a dangerous free kick to the left of the semicircle.
"There's some moments we dodged a few bullets today," Porter said. "It was a day where early on we got a little luck with the post. Those are things that don't get lost on me. But yeah, pedro's goal was massive."
Normally this would be a spot where all in attendance would rise in anticipation of another brilliant moment for star player Lucas Zelarayan, but he was not in the starting lineup for a second straight game due to knee inflammation. He entered in the 70th minute for forward Miguel Berry.
In his place, the Crew went with the next best shot taker from distance in Santos. He blistered the ball while all goalkeeper Jon Kempin could do was stare as it hit the back of the net.
As much as the first one might have taken some pressure off their shoulders, the Crew knew only a win would fully turn the momentum of the season back around. In the 43rd minute, Josh Williams and Etienne provided that moment.
Williams splashed a perfect pass over the top of the D.C. United defense onto the run of Etienne at the left corner of the box. He chested it down and hit the ball first time, perfectly in stride to sneak it inside the far post for a 2-0 lead.
Darlington Nagbe sealed the victory in the 75th minute with a spectacular goal on a volley atop the box off of an initial clearance by D.C. United on a corner kick.
Captain Jonathan Mensah disputed there was any proverbial weight lifted with the win, but the importance wasn't lost on the team.
"Weight? I don't think there was a weight, but obviously we knew this was coming," Mensah said. "We worked really hard in training, we prepared for this game. We needed something to turn around the results that we've been getting lately."
Though there were no goals against Kansas City in the previous game, Porter was adamant that his team had stopped the bleeding by ending the losing streak, and the point on the road was a turning point for the team’s confidence.
Santos’ goal did just as much to give the Crew some life. The win felt a bit like an early-season salvation.
"This was an early-season test, challenge, a lot of adversity," Porter said. "I thought the guys pulled out of it really well and actually I think we grew stronger because of it."
Derrick Etienne Jr. gains confidence
The winger play was always going to make-or-break the Crew's ability to score goals. They started off on a high early in the season but hadn't been producing lately. Maybe Etienne turned the corner with his goal in the 43rd minute.
Perhaps more than any other player on the Crew, Etienne plays a type of infectious swagger that drives his game. He's never shy of confidence in himself, but sometimes a player like that needs a lift. Getting an excellent touch and a sublime finish might be a point people can look back on as the moment he found his game again.
There are still moments where he can do more in dangerous positions. He was consistently behind the D.C. United back line, but would either have an errant cross with his weaker left foot or dribbled the ball out of bounds for a goal kick. Being more consistent with the ball in dangerous areas would take his game to another level.
"Derrick's a guy that he plays his best when he has a chip on his shoulder, when he has an edge," Porter said. "I was really happy tonight that even after the miss he had early in the game, he buries the next one. I told him before the game you need to play with that edge and something to prove. Like all players, coaches, we all get doubted, we all get questioned. He's had some criticism and ultimately it was great for him to score a goal."
Two straight clean sheets for the Crew
So many times this season — and last season — the Crew would be punished on the first goal they allowed. On Saturday, D.C. United created three big chances and just edged the Crew in the expected goals battle — 1.40-1.33 — but the Crew were good enough to keep a zero on the scoresheet.
Santos said shutting out a team for a second straight game is all about a new mindset.
"The last game against Kansas (City), we talk about to get the clean sheet and take the opportunity if we have it," he said. "And we had a couple the last game. This game was exactly the same."
On more than a couple of occasions in the second half, right back Marlon Hairston was beaten down the flank by D.C. United wingback Brad Smith. He had back-to-back crosses behind the Crew defense in the 61st and 63rd minutes. The first was saved by Room, and the second was booted over the bar by Julian Gressel from about 12 yards out.
Man of the match
Pedro Santos: scored the opening goal and defended well on the left side of the Crew defense. He saved a shot from Gressel off the line in the 77th minute.
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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Columbus Crew break out for three goals to snap winless streak