Steven Lenhart made the first start of his MLS career, scored his third goal in six games -- and then was sent off before the first half was out. But the Columbus Crew withstood the pressure from the Colorado Rapids despite the man disadvantage, then got a second late goal for a 2-0 victory Sunday at Dick's Sporting Goods Park.
Lenhart put the Crew ahead in the 21st minute then was ejected in the 43rd. Jason Garey sealed the victory for the Crew with his goal in the 75th minute, but goalkeeper William Hesmer certainly did his part, recording seven saves on the night as the Crew pulled within a point of the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
Conor Casey had Colorado's best chance early, getting a rebound off a throw-in in the 12th minute and unloading a powerful shot on the turn that Hesmer was just able to punch to his left.
Lenhart gave Columbus the edge with a 21st-minute goal on an assist from Stefani Miglioranzi, who found Lenhart to the right of the net and forced Rapids 'keeper Bouna Coundoul to come out of the goal and challenge him in front of the near post as Lenhart fired low into the far corner.
The opportunities were increasingly falling Colorado's way as the first half progressed, but they were unable to finish on their chances. The Rapids had an excellent opportunity in the 24th minute, with Mehdi Ballouchy passing to Colin Clark from midfield and Clark centering it for Casey, who headed it just wide of the goal.
The Rapids responded again in the 32nd minute with an opportunity in front of the goal, but Hesmer punched it out, recording another big save from close range.
Colorado nearly caught a break when Hesmer handled a pass back to the goal, setting up an indirect kick from just outside the penalty box. Terry Cooke charged in for the kick, apparently thinking it was a direct kick, and easily buried it into the goal behind Hesmer, but the goal was not allowed and Columbus was given a goal kick, escaping the threat.
Christian Gomez made good use of Ballouchy, finding him open when Gomez was getting extra attention, and setting up combinations like Ballouchy's pass to Terry Cooke on the wing, from where Cooke chipped it into the center and Casey sent a high header that Hesmer pulled in at the goal's edge.
The game was rough, with Columbus determined to get physical on the Rapids' home turf. Danny O'Rourke was shown a yellow card in the 13th minute after a sliding trip of Clark, and the Crew's Frankie Hejduk and Andy Iro and Colorado's Nick LaBrocca all earned yellow cards later in the match.
Lenhart played aggressively from the early minutes, getting a nasty push off on Facundo Erpen in the 15th minute that wasn't called. By the 43rd minute, however, when he sent Erpen to the turf with an elbow in front of Colorado's goal, he was shown a red card and ejected from the game by referee Shane Moody.
With Columbus down a man, the Rapids kept the pressure on throughout the second half, keeping the ball in Columbus' back third. They were unable to find the net, however, and Columbus added to their lead when 63rd-minute substitute Jason Garey took a flick-on from Eddie Gaven after a long downfield kick from Hesmer. Garey was able to maintain control despite pressure from Erpen in front of Colorado's goal, flicking it over Coundoul for a much-needed insurance goal.
The Rapids kept ramping up the pressure, with Clark missing two close shots in the last 15 minutes of the match, settling and shooting once wide and firing from the top of the area in the 82nd minute, just high.
Hesmer came up with two remarkable saves in the dying moments to preserve the shutout. Omar Cummings dove headlong to send a low header goalward, but Hesmer acrobatically kicked it aside.
Then Christian Gomez tried his luck with a free kick that was almost on the goal line, near the left corner. Gomez whipped the ball inside the near post, but Hesmer dove back and somehow knocked it away from almost right on the goal line.
Owen Perkins is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.