A late winner sends Crew 2 past Chicago Fire II

For the second time in two games, Columbus Crew 2 left it late but was able to earn a win on Saturday at SeatGeek Stadium. After getting a late equalizer in Week 1 against New York Red Bulls II and winning the match in a penalty kick shootout, the defending MLS NEXT Pro champions defeated the previously unbeaten Chicago Fire II 1-0 thanks to an 88th minute goal from forward Gibran Rayo.

Chicago had the run of the first half with more shots and possession as the home side created the better of the chances in the opening portion of the game. Fire II used long balls over the Crew 2 defense on a couple occasions, but was not to capitalize as the Black & Gold defense held strong.

The match changed, however, shortly before the halftime break. Chicago midfielder Javier Casas was shown a second yellow card and was sent off after a rash challenge as Columbus attempted to break out of the back. This left the home side with just 10 men for the second half for the second straight game. 

Crew 2 made no substitutions at the half but found significantly more possession with the man advantage. Noah Fuson, who has shifted to wingback this season, pushed farther up the field and found dangerous possession early in the second half.

Head coach Laurent Courtois made three substitutions in the 58th minute, bringing on new signing Mateo Bunbury on the left wing, Jordan Knight as a left wing back, and Aidan Wolf in the midfield. 

Knight made an instant impact, taking on defenders and causing Chicago headaches on the left flank. Crew 2 seemed destined to take the lead when Knight went down in the box on what looked to be a clear foul. The center referee took a different view and waived play on.

The match seemed destined for penalty kicks as it progressed into the closing stages, but Rayo played the hero late.

With just two minutes left in regulation, midfielder Marco Micaletto kept the ball in the attack, fighting off defenders and was able to find Bunbury. The substitute picked out Rayo at the top of the penalty box, allowing the forward to take a touch to drop the ball back and away from the defender. Rayo then wrapped his foot around the ball and put a low blast in the bottom right corner of the goal to give the Black & Gold lead. 

Rayo joined Columbus early in the offseason from the now-defunct Rochester New York FC. Rayo finished the 2022 MLS NEXT Pro season with 13 goals in 23 matches, sixth overall in the league. Bunbury joined Columbus just days prior on loan from Birmingham Legion FC. Mateo Bunbury is the younger brother of Teal Bunbury, an MLS veteran playing currently for Nashville SC.

Columbus was able to see out the win over the final two minutes and stoppage time to move to 1-0-1 on the young season and up to fifth place in the Eastern Conference after two games.

Plenty to improve on

The win should feel good for Crew 2, but Courtois has plenty of work ahead of him. Fire II was in complete control of the game prior to the red card and it still took nearly all of the second half while playing a man up for the Black & Gold to find a goal.

Courtois and Micaletto spoke after the game about the team needing more composure and consistency, which was clear throughout the match. Expectations are high for Columbus but Courtois mentioned that he needs to balance his demands and patience since this is a very different team than the MLS NEXT Pro champions of last year. 

Defensive approach

Last season, Crew 2 was an attacking group, riding the team’s league-best 62 goals scored to the best record in the league and an MLS NEXT Pro Cup. While it’s yet to be seen if the goals will start flowing as more chemistry develops among the attackers, it does seem the defense can carry the Black & Gold to results.

The Capybaras haven’t conceded a goal since the seventh minute of the opening game. Other than that finish, goalkeeper Brady Scott has played well. Courtois made changes to his starting backline from Week 1, inserting Ty Nero and Xavierr Zengue as center backs alongside Abdi Mohamed. He also played more experienced wing backs from the start, with Jake Morris and Fuson on the left and right. This group helped keep Chicago off the board, even when playing with 11 men and may need to do so in future games.

What’s next

Crew 2 finally returns to Columbus for the team’s first game at Historic Crew Stadium of 2023 next Sunday. The Black & Gold welcome New England Revolution II to America’s first professional soccer stadium, with the match kicking off at 1 p.m. ET.

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