Until the Crew SC learn to put games to bed there are going to be more sleepless nights like the one Wednesday at Mapfre Stadium.
The home side was 10 minutes away from beating the hottest team in the MLS for the second time this season. But as Toronto FC and the rest of the league are well aware, the Crew remains vulnerable at closing time.
The Reds, who left star playmaker Sebastian Giovinco home to deal with a heel injury, rallied for two late goals and a 2-1 victory before an announced crowd of 10,318 fans. Tosaint Ricketts scored in the 81st and 90th minutes as the Crew failed to deal with a pair of crosses.
The stunning setback comes two weeks after New York City FC, which played without David Villa, stung the Crew with goals in the 64th and 76th minute for a 3-2 come-from-behind victory.
There’s much to like about the new-look Crew (5-5-1), but until it exorcises the ghosts of blown leads past, opponents know there’s always a chance to rescue points from losing positions. Columbus allowed a league-high 22 goals after the 75th minute a season ago.
Toronto, winners of five consecutive games, had nothing going for it through much of last night’s match. Crew keeper Zack Steffen stopped a Jozy Altidore penalty kick late in the first half after Federico Higuain scored from the spot in the 28th minute.
The weary Reds had traveled cross continent after earning a 1-0 win at Seattle on Saturday. They had no Giovinco, no sustained pressure and just two second-half shots on target. Both ended up in the back of the net.
Somewhere in Denmark, Steve Clark could feel Steffen’s pain.
“Give Toronto credit,” said Crew assistant coach Josh Wolff, filling in for a suspended Gregg Berhalter. “They made plays – the few plays that came their way, they made them. They are critical in this game as far as taking care of chances in and around the box. They took two of them late. They didn’t have a lot, but they were enough.
“For us, we missed some chances. We probably let ourselves down on some defensive chances we could have dealt with better.”
In a quiet home locker room, Justin Meram rued a missed opportunity in the 79th minute that he just blew wide right. It could have given the Crew a 2-0 lead. Meram, who’s enjoyed a strong start to the campaign, is part of an offense that has found ways to score insurance goals this season unlike last year.
But good teams protect one-goal leads with consistency. The Crew demonstrated the ability for an entire half in 2-1 win over Toronto on April 15. They failed two weeks ago against New York FC, however, and fell short again last night at winning time. The result: Just three points from a three-game homestand.
“I thought we controlled for the majority of the game,” said rookie center back Alex Crognale, who’s been a fine addition. “In most games, when you’re controlling for that long, you would expect to get the three points. So, that’s unfortunate.”
Crognale has seldom looked like a first-year player, but he had a rocky return to the starting lineup after injuring his right ankle April 22 against the New York Red Bulls. He misplayed a clearing attempt late in the first half that led to Altidore’s penalty kick. He also was part of a back line that struggled on the two late crosses.
“I think Alex has had some good moments in a short time for us and today is going to be a learning experience,” Wolff said. “I think there’s some plays that come his way that even he would say could have been dealt with better. Again, on the day we didn’t make those plays and Toronto did. For Alex, it’s an opportunity to learn.”
The common denominator on both Toronto goals was zero pressure on the crosses. The Crew was too narrow in defending the tying goal. Raheem Edwards had acres of space to loft a cross from the right flank to Ricketts, who soared above the 6-foot-5 Crognale and nodded home the equalizer.
On the winner, Edwards was afforded too much time on the left flank to find a streaking Victor Vazquez, who stepped in front of Crognale and deflected the ball across the face of goal to a waiting Ricketts at the right post.
“He got his leg out in front of me and got a touch,” said Crognale, paired at center back with Jonathan Mensah. “That put it out of my reach and there was a guy waiting for it on the back post.”
The rookie’s teammates were quick to spread the blame for the breakdowns.
“We’re all learning from this one,” captain Wil Trapp said. “You can’t put your worth on one performance, one good one or one bad one. We’re obviously all disappointed, plain and simple. But we live and die as a team.”
There’s plenty of season left to correct these late-game miscues, and the sooner the better. But every opponent will remind their players that the Crew’s self-inflicted wounds of 2016 remain fresh.
The Crew return to action Saturday in Montreal. You can bet they didn’t get much sleep last night.