STOKE CITY were undone by a storming finish from Columbus Crew as their pre-season tour of the United States opened with a 2-1 defeat on Tuesday evening.
Manager Tony Pulis saw his side take a first half lead through Jonathan Walters before a much-changed line-up after the break succumbed to strikes from Aaron Horton and Ben Speas in the final 20 minutes of a good workout at the Columbus Crew Stadium.
Pulis’ had stated before the game that his squad’s tough pre-season schedule and Crew’s sharper match fitness may well be telling factors in the outcome of the game, and that certainly proved to be the case with the MLS side’s stronger finish to the encounter.
Walters had headed the Potters in front midway through the first half with a close range finish, although they were indebted to Asmir Begovic for a couple of fine saves in the first half which ensured that they went in at the break with a slender advantage.
Pulis rang the changes after the break to give other members of the squad game time and Columbus made the most of that by coming back to snatch the victory.
Jairo Renteria was the architect of their downfall with two bursts down the right to tee up chances that were taken by Horton and Speas in the closing stages.
Among the many second half changes, Pulis gave Mamady Sidibe the chance to launch his first team comeback and therefore end two years of injury torment.
Pulis began the game with something approaching a full-strength line-up, but he opted to hand Ness his debut at left back and bring Palacios into the centre of midfield alongside Whitehead in preference to Whelan.
After the heavy thunderstorms earlier in the day, the game got underway in hot evening sunshine and it was City who created the first real threat when Walters’ persistence forced the Columbus ‘keeper Gruenebaum into a poor clearance which dropped straight at the feet of Crouch some 35 yards from goal.
Although the England striker appeared to have a clear path to goal initially, the home side’s defence recovered smartly to close him down and his eventual attempt at goal was not struck with any great venom to test the ‘keeper.
After the bright opening, the Potters were somewhat fortunate not to fall behind as Crew carved out some good openings and they were indebted on at least a couple of occasions to Begovic for making a couple of crucial saves.
Meram had been highlighted as the main threat to City and he was the chief culprit in squandering a number of chances, firstly when he planted a twisting header over the bar after being picked out by Duka’s cross from the left.
Begovic then had to race off his line to save with his legs at the feet of Meram when Duka’s cross fell to him unmarked in the middle.
The giant Bosnian then had to dive at full stretch to push out a stinging drive from Birchall some 25 yards out, but it dropped conveniently for Duka who wasted no time in firing in another shot which cleared the bar by inches.
Columbus were left to rue those missed opportunities when City broke forward and went in front midway through the half.
Shotton set up the opportunity by making headway down the right hand side before sending over a pinpoint cross to the near post where Walters had peeled off his marker to calmly head home from close range.
Walters was only inches away from adding a second minutes later when Etherington latched onto a pass from Ness and whipped over a menacing cross from the left which flashed past the striker at the far post.
City appeared to have gained the upper hand after an uneasy start and Ness showed a nice touch again when advancing forward which paved the way for Crouch to make room 20 yards out and fire a shot over the bar.
Duka had caused plenty of problems for the Potters down the left hand side, but he posed his next threat when moving infield to unleash a blistering drive which beat Begovic’s dive, but cannoned off the crossbar to safety.
When he returned to his more natural position out wide, Duka whipped over a cross which was glanced wide of the far post by the incoming Meram, meaning that City held onto their slender lead at the break.
The first 15 minutes of the second half were dominated by a steady procession of substitutions by both sides and by the hour mark, the Potters had an entirely different eleven on the pitch to give them game time.
The most notable change saw Sidibe introduced for his first appearance in the first team for two years following a succession of injury blows which ruled him out for all but a handful of reserve team appearances.
The best opportunity fell to Columbus when Finlay turned the ball over from the right hand side and Schoenfield sent a glancing header flashing across the face of goal, although the diving Sorensen had it covered.
The home side went close again when Gehrig delivered the cross from the right and Horton rose at the far post to head wide.
City had the chance to stretch their lead in the 68th minute when Jerome burst forward onto a Whelan pass, but he was dispossessed and within seconds of that opening, Columbus hauled themselves on level terms.
Renteria, who had been involved in a clash with Whelan when the two players squared up to each other, set up the 71st minute equaliser by dragging the ball back from the right for Horton to apply the finishing touch.
After a period of good possession for the Potters, the home side had a great chance to go in front as Gehrig ventured down the right hand side and sent over a low cross which was scooped over the bar by the unmarked Vargas.
The warning signs were there and with four minutes on the clock, another Columbus move down the right unlocked their resistance.
Renteria pulled the ball back once again and Speas gratefully accepted the chance to lash his shot past Sorensen from the edge of the box.
City went close to grabbing an equaliser right at the death when Tonge swung over a cross from the left to find Jerome at the far post, but he was at full stretch with his close range header and didn’t manage to get it on target.