On Saturday the Crew invited Real Salt Lake over to The House That Lamar Built for a little game of soccer.
The hometown side was trying to tie the league record for longest home unbeaten streak, not to mention keep their playoff hopes alive.
Not a big deal until it you take into account that The Crew were going to play without it's (and the league's) top scorer Guillermo Barros Schelotto, it's workhorse forward Alejandro Moreno, and the current MLS Defender of the Year Chad Marshall.
Oh, they would also play without right wing/stud Robbie Rogers and Olympic silver medalist Emmanuel Ekpo. No big deal right? Wrong, those five guys count for 17 of the Crew's 22 goals this season.
Enter Steven (Cabbage Patch) Lenhart and supersub Jason Garey, two of Columbus' top young guns. Add in a little of Duncan (The Kiwi Cannon) Oughton and you've got a recipe for a game that was a flat out joy to watch. These guys decided to go out and, well, play.
You could tell by the fifth minute that the three of them, and the other eight Columbus starters, were having some fun. Garey was making runs like his life was on the line, Lenhart was getting his blonde head on every ball within 10 yards, and Oughton was passing like a 32-year-old master, seeing everything on the pitch and choosing his moments wisely.
Even defender Danny O'Rourke took a shot in the 25th minute.
The 12,922 in attendance waited just 23 minutes for the first payoff. Duncan played a quick ball to a sprinting Frankie Hejduk who crossed it into the box and Steven hammered it home from there. It was his first goal of the season, though it should have been his 300th. The kid is everywhere.
As he ran back to midfield for the restart, the huge grin on his face said, "Ohmygod that was fun let's do it again!"
And they did, nine minutes later. Eddie Gaven served up a cross to Lenhart but his header went straight up into the air. "No problem," said Steven as he headed it again, but this time it was deflected by RSL keeper Nick Rimando. Deflected straight to Garey, and the ball quickly found the back of the net. A massive chest bump between Lenhart and Garey followed, with "old man" Oughton looking on like a proud papa.
The fun continued for the rest of the half, which ended with the Black and Gold sitting on top, 2-0. The last time the Crew took a two goal lead to the locker room was back in April against Chicago, when the Fire stole two goals in the last five minutes to force the draw. But we weren't thinking about that in the Nordecke, we were too elated to breathe.
The second half was much like the first as Duncan lead the way with masterful through balls, and everyone else doing everything humanly possible to put the ball in the net. Steven almost killed himself at one point, laying out to try and put his head on a cross but nearly putting his head on the post instead.
The most beautiful Crew goal of the season, certainly that I've ever seen in person, came in the 53rd minute. Oughton and Garey traded one-touches and then found Lenhart, who back-heeled it right back to Garey. Then Jason did something no Crew player except Schelotto has done all year: Finished.
The back heel from Lenhart had the Nordecke going nuts, so much so that I almost didn't see the goal. I know I saw it, but I don't remember seeing the shot leave his foot. I just remember seeing the ball in the net and screaming my head off. Everyone around me was in agreement: Goal. Of. The. Year.
That made it 3-0, and Royal Salt Lake ran around lost for the next 20 minutes. They couldn't have scored in a brothel. But even a broken clock is right twice a day, and Raphael Cox got the visitors on the board in the 76th. Props to him, it was his first career goal.
Steven ran out of gas somewhere around the 80th and was subbed out for Kevin Burns, who had a few good touches of his own. Utility guy Jed Zayner came on for Jason Garey in the 86th but by then the party had started. We, as Crew fans, know never to count our chickens but we didn't care, it was a 3-1 home victory and it put us one step closer to first place in the East.
Afterwards, as Frankie came over to the crowd for his post-game beer, chants of "Toronto's next" could be heard throughout the section. The Crew is back, baby, and this time we're doing it with the young guys. Yeah, the veterans are valuable, but our future is bright.
And if our subs can beat up on a team like this now, what are they going to when they're the starters?