COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — The Columbus Crew won its first playoff game ever at Lower.com Field behind a brace from its star striker. Cucho Hernandez scored twice for the Black & Gold in a 2-0 win over Atlanta United in game one of the first-round series.
Hernandez scored in stoppage time in the first half and netted a penalty kick early in the second half. Those were enough as Atlanta generated almost no attacking momentum for the entire 90 minutes.
The win for Columbus gives them a 1-0 lead in the series as the MLS’ first-round matchups are best-of-three series. Game 2 will take place Tuesday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. If the Crew win, they advance to the conference semifinals that will take place on Nov. 25/26. If they lose, a deciding Game 3 will be played on Nov. 12 back in Columbus.
The Crew went with its normal starting 11 headlined by a front three led by Cucho Hernandez, Diego Rossi, and Alex Matan. Atlanta United had to make quick changes to its lineup with the suspension of star playmaker Thiago Almada. Head coach Gonzalo Pineda started with three center backs in defense with 20-year-old midfielder Ajani Fortune starting in Almada’s place.
Columbus was through on goal within the first 90 seconds after Hernandez pinged a cross-field through ball to Julian Gressel. Gressel hesitated as he ran into the box and did not get a shot off.
This was part of a stretch early on of the Crew controlling the game as they have throughout much of 2023. Despite a majority of the possession, Columbus could not generate too many shots in the first half.
The next best chance came in the 34th minute as Gressel flicked a header from a corner to an open Malte Amundsen in front of goal. The Danish defender could not head it on target. Matan then got a shot on target two minutes later but had it saved by Brad Guzan.
The Crew broke the deadlock in stoppage time of the first half as Hernandez smashed the ball past Guzan at the near post with his left foot. It was the Colombian’s first MLS Cup playoff goal after leading the team with 16 in the regular season.
Just a few minutes after the second half began, the Crew earned a penalty kick after Matan went down in the box from a Ronald Hernandez foul. Cucho stepped up to take the spot kick and slotted it home in the 51st minute.
Under pressure, the Five Stripes raised the tempo and began to retain possession chasing to get back into the game. It did not yield any results with Atlanta only amassing one shot the whole game. The Crew had 13 shots in the game and an expected goals number of 1.87, compared to Atlanta’s measly 0.07 xG.
Columbus will try and take this dominance to Georgia for Game 2 on Tuesday. Atlanta will have Almada back for a game where the team’s season could end. If the match on Tuesday ends in a draw after 90 minutes, it will go to penalty kicks to decide the winner.
MLS Cup Playoffs first round Game 2 schedule
Nov. 4 (7 p.m.): 8 New York Red Bulls vs. 1 FC Cincinnati (CIN leads 1-0)
Nov. 4 (9 p.m.): 7 FC Dallas vs. 2 Seattle Sounders (SEA leads 1-0)
Nov. 5 (5 p.m.): 8 Sporting Kansas City vs. 1 St. Louis CITY SC (SKC leads 1-0)
Nov. 5 (7:30 p.m.): 6 Vancouver Whitecaps vs. 3 Los Angeles FC (LAFC leads 1-0)
Nov. 6 (9 p.m.): 5 Real Salt Lake vs. 4 Houston Dynamo (HOU leads 1-0)
Nov. 7 (7 p.m.): 6 Atlanta United vs. 3 Columbus Crew (CLB leads 1-0)
Nov. 7 (9 p.m.): 7 Nashville SC vs. 2 Orlando City (ORL leads 1-0)
Nov. 8 (7 p.m.): 5 New England Revolution vs. 4 Philadelphia Union (PHI leads 1-0)