After Columbus Crew tie with Philadelphia Union, it’s not getting any easier

First, let’s talk about the call, or the non-call. Crew forward Christian Ramirez appeared to be bear-hugged from behind by as he was hauled down (looked like a suplex) in front of Philadelphia’s goal by a Union defender Jack Elliott. It happened in second-half stoppage time at the new Crew Stadium Saturday night.

Asked how he’d describe the play, Ramirez said:

“Penalty. One hundred percent.”

Alas, there was no call from referee Jon Freeman, who had the backing of the VAR official, Ramirez said.

Crew fans voiced their displeasure, with gusto, and a couple minutes later the final whistle sounded. A match between Eastern Conference heavyweights, played in front of a sellout crowd of 20,456, ended in a 1-1 tie.

Ramirez said the referee Jon Freeman told him that he, Ramirez, was the transgressor in the net front battle. Which is interesting. Looked like a suplex.

Let’s get all of this “foul/no foul” stuff out of the way, because to reduce this particular game down to a non-call in second-half extra time is to neglect what happened in the 90-plus minutes that preceded it.

Philly was Philly. They’re big and physical and when they want to back up the bus, they’re almost impossible to penetrate. They are among the best defensive teams in the Eastern Conference with 37 goals allowed in 31 games, and they have one of the best keepers in the league in Andre Blake.

What is more, once they transit to offense, they go forward with vicious intent and stunning alacrity. Remember, this team is a year removed from a near double – they won the Supporters Shield in 2022 and then lost in the MLS Cup final, on kicks, to LAFC last year.

That said, Philly is a team that was playing its fifth game in 15 days, a testament to the suicidally compressed schedule that came from jamming the League’s Cup tournament into the middle of the MLS season. The Crew, on the other hand, were coming off a full week of rest and had a clear task before them – get three points and climb the ladder in the East. The Crew were not quite up to the test.

This was a game with ramifications. By stealing a point on the road, Philadelphia (14-8-9) maintained it place among the top four in the East. The top four are guaranteed home-field advantage through the first round of the playoffs. The top two are guaranteed home-field advantage through the conference semifinals. It was a big point.

The Crew, the most potent attacking team in the league, slid from third place (tied) to fifth. They swallowed hard and focused on the positive with three games remaining: at third-place New England Wednesday, at red-hot Atlanta Saturday and then, after an international break, at home against Montreal on Decision Day, Oct. 21.

“We had a good game against a difficult team,” Crew coach Wilfried Nancy said. “It’s not easy to face a low block with almost eight players defending. But we found a way to attack the box. We had good chances. The goalkeeper is so good. He made a few saves. He made many saves.”

Nancy chuckled there.

The Crew had 68% of the possession and put nine shots on Blake, who was excellent on this night. What gave Nancy (and 20,000-plus Crew fans) pause was the goal the home team conceded. It came on corner kick early in the second half when Kai Wagner served up a header for Nathan Harriel – who was wide open in the middle of the box. Wide open.

“At the end of the day,” Nancy said, “we cannot concede a corner like this. We have to be better.”

The Crew tied the game in the 72nd minute on a penalty kick from Cucho Hernandez. It was his eighth goal in five games.

“We’re in good spirits,” Crew wingback Julian Gressel said. “This was good for us. That air is coming. That fall air. It felt like a playoff game.”

On to New England.

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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: As MLS East comes down to the wire, Columbus Crew settles for draw


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