By Ryan Smith
It was a comfortable summer evening in Columbus that brought two teams together, both seeking out vital points in the race to get into the MLS playoffs. One team, the Columbus Crew sat atop its division, enjoying a successful start to the season, yet the majority of attention currently is being given to a reinforced New York Red Bulls team chasing them for the precious top spot. The Crew could use an impressive display from their talent laden roster to switch the spotlight back into its corner. The other team, the Houston Dynamo have fallen off the pace for a playoff spot, mostly due to a winless drought that dates back to the middle of May. And although the Dynamo are down, their recent form suggests that the quality of the team is forming slowly and that optimism could be had with a good road result.
Prior to kick-off, the players from both sides appeared calm and relaxed, but the crowd resembled a party atmosphere, most standing and chanting with vigor, proudly wearing their yellow and black in support of their home team. One was hard pressed to find a follower of the Dynamo, and with such a clearly one-sided backing, it seemed appropriate that Columbus’s starting line-up, a 4-1-3-2, suggested that they were prepared to force the action, control the game in the attacking third of the field, and take advantage of a crowd ready to cheer at the mere hint of excitement.
Houston opened the game in a 4-4-2, a form poised to counter an over aggressive opposition with sturdy defending and direct route passing to two front men ready to capitalize on the offensively minded opposition. A more conservative 4-5-1 would have suggested that Houston was willing to sit back and defend all game, barely caring to create any threat, but a 4-4-2, this game had excitement written all over it. Houston didn’t just want a point; they wanted to win this one.
And so it start…and possession was one sided in favor of the home team, who carefully moved, dribbled, and passed into open space with what appeared to be ease. Columbus’s confidence was present at every single position on the field. When Houston did manage to regain possession, the Crew defenders were a step ahead and precisely disrupted every attack, barely allowing the Dynamo to string together more than two passes at a time. This flow continued basically the entire first half, with Columbus creating multiple chances in front of Houston’s net. It was quite a site, really. Upon build up from the back five, Columbus’s front five rotated beautifully between each other, always creating triangles and outlets, producing a prolonged attack that patiently waited to deliver a final ball through on to net.
Yet despite all the possession and shots, the best chance was first produced by Houston, twenty-one minutes into the game. The chance was set up by a mistake from the right fullback, who misplayed his first touch, got the ball stolen, and then tackled the Houston forward right outside of the penalty box. Basically exactly what Houston was hoping for this entire game, and so it was a free kick for Houston, the kicker curls the ball beautifully around the wall, but the ball sails inches high of the upper left post. After the miss, the game resumed its one-sided disposition, with the Crew retaining possession with the nifty movement of the three attacking midfielders and two strikers, but one man in particular looked more dangerous than the rest, his name, Emillio Renteria. Emillio was different from the rest of Columbus’s attacking five, what he lacked in finesse, he made up for with shear desire and physicality, always finishing off his pressuring of Houston’s back-line with vigor and determination.
And so it happened that the first goal was produced by Emillio, who continued to race towards a goal keeper who looked easily ready to jump on a long ball from the back, only the keeper slipped up and Emillio ran by him collecting the ball on the way and easily passing it into the back of the net in the thirty-fourth minute. As play resumed, Emillio continued to create havoc. About five minutes from stoppage, Renteria chipped a ball past a defender and looked to be racing in for a one on one with the goalie, but the defender pulled him down, acquiring a yellow card for his discretion. Than, right before the end of the half, Renteria chased down two defenders who were jogging back to clear a ball, Renteria poked a toe in on the ball, ran by and fired a shot inside the penalty box, only this time the goalie stood his ground and made the save. Half time whistle and the score reads Columbus 1 – Houston 0.
Half time thoughts: Both teams remained shockingly calm despite the flow of the game. Houston was getting badly outplayed, and despite all of that, the team continued to run hard and there remained a resilient look about them. While, Columbus impressed, they weren’t over confident, patiently playing at the same pace throughout the half. Even their attacking midfielders, who sometimes were making runs deep into the attacking third of the field, hustled back at full speed when the opposition was on the counter.
Also of note, it’s quite obvious that there is a talent edge in favor of Columbus. The back four in particular have impressed with not only their athleticism, cause those boys are all big and fast, but it was their poise on the ball that stood out. The normal right fullback, Frank Hedjuk was sitting out and the left fullback was making his first start, so things are looking good if Columbus has this quality in its backups.
Houston is making a change at halftime, they are taking off forward Cam Weaver, replacing him with another forward, Joseph Ngwenya, and despite this fact, the first ten minutes have resembled most of the first half, Houston chasing the game. Wait, Brian Ching losses Chad Marshal for a second, and bursts past him to receive a through ball from about twenty-five yards, but fails to get off a shot from a tricky angle. Sixty minutes into the game and one just haven’t seen enough of this kind of threat from the Dynamo who are making another change, and hoping that it would be tactical, was disappointed when it turned out to be a simple outside midfielder swap.
The second half had been short on excitement, until midfielder Robbie Rogers was played in by a wonderful through ball from Guillermo Barros Schelotto, and Rogers should have scored there with plenty of time to pick a corner to work around the goalie, but the keeper saved the game again for his struggling Dynamo. They are still only one goal back, wait, this isn’t good, and a second yellow from a Houston defender and now they will be playing a man short for the last nineteen minutes. Emillio Renteria, by the way, created the foul by using his physicality to position himself for a pass, and was pulled down as he turned to race towards net. Great game thus far for Renteria, although it did look like he exaggerated the tackle to get the second yellow.
The Crew went on to put two more goals in, and finished the game up 3 – 0. It was pretty lopsided from the ejection forward. Emillio was substituted right after the tackle, for another forward, but this game was starred in by Renteria. He appears to be exactly what Columbus needs up front, even though at times he looks confused as to where to go with his second touch, it’s his fearlessness that gives Columbus that extra spark. It’s not all Renteria on Columbus though, there is talent at every position on the field and at times, at least tonight, the team made the game look easy with their short passes and crafty dribbling. If the Crew were looking to send a message to the league tonight, they succeeded in showcasing a poised back five defenders, and a front five that can rotate between each other and occupy different roles, something one would think is challenging to prepare for. Columbus looks to be staying around for awhile this season, and one would think that there is enough talent there to possibly challenge for a title.