Columbus 2, Real Salt Lake 1: Cunningham Denied Alltime Scoring Mark by Post, Mendoza

In a meeting of injury- and international-absence–riddled teams at Crew Stadium last night, Columbus rallied to beat Real Salt Lake 2-1 on goals by Andres Mendoza and Josh Gardner.

Gardner’s strike came in the 82nd minute, deflecting off RSL defender Chris Schuler and flying past a wrong-footed Nick Rimando to supply the Crew with a dramatic game-winner.

But it was Mendoza’s goal that provided the game’s main talking point. After Columbus rookie Justin Meram—who set up the Crew’s stoppage-time equalizer against New York last week—drew a penalty in the 75th minute, Mendoza fetched a ball from a nearby ballboy and went to the spot, where fellow striker Jeff Cunningham was waiting.

Scroll to the 3:30 mark of the clip below to see what happened:

Mendoza—who was just made a designated player in the offseason and has been struggling mightily since getting the big bucks—insisted on taking the potentially game-tying PK even though Cunningham was a) the team’s designated penalty-taker for the game, and b) one goal behind Jaime Moreno for the alltime MLS career scoring lead.

(Cunningham has 132 career goals; Moreno, the former D.C. United legend, retired with 133.)

Both Sebastian Miranda and Columbus captain Chad Marshall came over to Mendoza in apparent attempts to try to explain the situation/dissuade him, but Mendoza would not budge.

All we can say is, good thing he made it.

Cunningham, who hit the post with a powerful header in the second half, was extremely gracious in his postgame comments about the controversy, telling the league website:

“I’m happy for Mendoza. The boy deserves it. He’s definitely putting in the work tonight. Usually I’m one and Mendoza is two [to take the kick]. He felt very confident that he would score. Sometimes you have to lead by example and be a servant.

“It’s good for him. We need him to be at his best. That goal was probably more important for the club than me at this point. As a forward he’s been under a lot of pressure. It’s important for us to be supportive of him. I’m happy he stepped up and he’s confident enough to score. Life goes on and we got three points.”

Mendoza missed two very make-able chances against the Red Bulls last week, and had flubbed an excellent cross from Cunningham earlier in this match (though he was also ruled offside). He struggled to make the starting lineup earlier in the season.

Afterward, Mendoza claimed through a translator that he didn’t know Cunningham was on the cusp of the record or that the Crew veteran had been designated to take any PKs in the game.

Hmmm. Then what was Miranda, a fellow Spanish speaker, saying to him as they huddled over the ball in the clip above?

We’d be willing to bet it went something like this: “Hey Andres, Jeff is one goal away from tying the alltime league scoring record—maybe let him take this? Oh, also, coach Warzycha said Cunningham should take any PKs tonight, okay? So how bout stepping aside? … No? Okay, well, enjoy life back in Peru if you don’t effin make it.”

Note that Cunningham was the first player to congratulate Mendoza after the spot kick. That gesture, and his postgame comments (not to mention the win), should help smooth things over in the Columbus locker room.

Real Salt Lake were without regulars Alvaro Saborio (Gold Cup), Arturo Alvarez (Gold Cup),  Will Johnson (Gold Cup), Paulo Jr (hip flexor) and Javier Morales (ankle), while Columbus was missing Robbie Rogers (Gold Cup), Dilly Duka (ankle), Emilio Renteria (quadriceps), and Tommy Heinemann (hamstring).