Columbus Crew SC Hangs Four on New York City FC To Take Control of Eastern Conference Semis

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Not many gave Columbus Crew SC a chance to make it this far.

Against Atlanta United last Thursday, on the road, in front of a gigantic crowd, they were expected to falter. They didn’t. And after one leg of the MLS Eastern Conference semifinals, they don’t look like they’re going anywhere when the next round commences.

The Black and Gold routed New York City FC by a score of 4-1, favorably positioning themselves in the conference semifinals. Ola Kamara and Justin Meram continued their strong run of form as part of the Crew SC attack, while Artur and Harrison Afful registered their first goals of the season in the win. It marked the most goals scored and largest margin of victory in the club’s playoff history.

Columbus Crew SC Hangs Four on New York City FC To Take Control of Eastern Conference Semifinals

Manager Gregg Berhalter went with the same starting XI from last Thursday’s penalty shootout victory over Atlanta United in the knockout round. That didn’t serve as much of a surprise, but a few players came into this game on a yellow card. Left back Hector Jimenez and defensive midfielder Artur would miss the second leg of this series if they received a caution.

Both sides traded chances right off the bat. But Columbus made more of concerted effort to send numbers forward. That proactiveness paid off handsomely six minutes in. Right winger Pedro Santos squared the ball into Federico Higuain who put it on target, forcing a save out of NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson. But Ola Kamara displayed a poacher’s penchant for goal in cleaning up the rebound and giving Crew SC a 1-0 lead.

Upping the lads is a term supporters use to describe their efforts at getting their team hyped on the pitch. Right before Kamara’s tally, the first chant of #SaveTheCrew rang out from the Nordecke and the rest of the MAPFRE Stadium faithful. Almost immediately the side in black and yellow swarmed the final third like a hive of killer bees with purpose. It showed on Kamara’s 19th goal of the year counting regular season and playoffs.

“That’s an environment you want to play in,” Kamara told the Columbus Dispatch after the game. “Everybody was really into the game and I think we fed off of that energy and it gave us a lot.”

Both Columbus and NYC continued some vibrant attacking play throughout the rest of the first half. In the visitors’ case, it was none other than David Villa who tried to equalize. The 2010 World Cup winner finished the opening 45 with half of his team’s eight shots. It included an inability to take advantage of a defensive mistake from Josh Williams. After the Crew SC defender slipped, Villa dribbled towards goal but his shot hit the right post.

And how the lead remained 1-0 Crew SC at the break is shocking to say the least. On two occasions in the final 15 minutes of the half, they had legitimate opportunities to build upon their advantage. In both cases, the final product from a finishing standpoint went lacking. First came a Justin Meram shot in the 32nd minute which sailed over the cross bar from near point blank range. Eight minutes later, Kamara did the same thing.

Seven minutes into the second half, the match was turned on its head. After Meram went down clutching his face, referee Ismail Elfath went to VAR to determine if an incident between him and Alexander Callens warranted further discipline. After doing so, Elfath pulled out a red card, sending the Peruvian defender to the locker room prematurely. It ensure that he will not take part in the second leg.

Crew SC certainly needed to add to their existing tally if they were to get a stranglehold on this two-legged series. It didn’t take long for them to do so. The breakthrough came from the most unlikely of players in Artur. After NYC midfielder Alexander Ring lost his footing and in turn the ball, the Columbus counter was on. And the Brazilian number eight settled an Higuain pass at the top of the box, took a few touches and blasted it past Johnson.

But a two-goal cushion with a one-man advantage for the majority of the first half would ultimately come across as an opportunity missed if the scoreline held. So Columbus kept pushing for another. And with the club excelling at hitting NYC on the counter as they searched for a response of their own, their efforts eventually paid off. In the 69th minute, Meram hit a ball that Johnson misplayed, caroming past him and into the net for Crew SC’s third.

The trifecta of tallies for the home side put them in great shape if they could avoid conceding. But with a player of Villa’s caliber on the other side of the field, it’s always going to be a challenge. The Spanish sensation missed two opportunities in the first half. And just nine minutes after Artur’s goal, Villa got one back for NYC. He took advantage of Jonathan Mensah slipping on the damp surface, hitting a shot on the full volley past Steffen.

Villa equaled his goal-scoring haul from last year’s regular season and playoffs with the tally. And it certainly quieted a crowd that continually made their feeling felt about recent developments regarding the future of their club, both in general and directly at owner Anthony Precourt who attended Tuesday’s match. But late into the four minutes of second half stoppage time, they received a lifeline from another surprise source.

Harrison Afful, in his third season with the club, who did register three goals in 2016, came through in the clutch. The 31-year-old Ghanaian showed his quality as a two-way fullback with a superb display of moves en route to Crew SC’s fourth. He weaved through the box and past three NYCFC defenders before deftly slotting the ball past Johnson to re-establish his side’s three-goal margin.

Afful’s performances, both on Tuesday and in last week’s win in Atlanta, were highly appreciated by his coach. After nearly giving his side the win in the knockout round, he made an already significant aggregate advantage all the more difficult to overcome for their opponents.

“I think Harrison’s been good,” Berhalter noted about Afful. “The focus that he had before the Atlanta game was tremendous. In training, the intensity and the movement (was evident) and there was no surprise that he had a good game against Atlanta.”

“And then to follow it up (tonight) was important for him. He needed to establish that he can continue to play at this level. We know he’s a high-level full-back in this league, and he just needs to keep doing it, because he’s quality.”

His late game heroics also elicited nothing but high praise from his teammates.

“I couldn’t believe the goal,” Meram exclaimed in the locker room after the game. “I’m watching it like…I mean, that’s him. He does this stuff in training sometimes that you guys don’t see. That’s what makes him special, he’s just a wonderful guy and I’m so happy for him.”

The result means that NYC would need to beat Columbus 3-0 in the second leg to advance to the next round. A Crew SC goal would necessitate the “Cityzens” put in four to send it to extra time. And any subsequent goal would force NYC to win by a four goal margin. Any way you look at it, Villa’s lone goal could loom large if the NYCFC attack suddenly wakes up in the Bronx this coming Sunday (5 PM ET, ESPN).

Photo credit: Columbus Crew SC Communications

MATCH SUMMARY
Goals (assists):
CLB
Ola Kamara 6′
Artur (Federico Higuaín) 58′
Justin Meram (Ola Kamara, Federico Higuain) 69′
Harrison Afful (Justin Meram) 90+3′

NYC
David Villa 78′

Substitutions:
CLB
Pedro Santos –> Kekuta Manneh 75′
Federico Higuain –> Lalas Abubakar 88′
Artur –> Mohammed Abu 90+1′

NYC
Rodney Wallace –> Ronald Matarrita 56′
Ethan White –> Andraz Struna 74′
Jack Harrison –> Sean Okoli 79′

Cautions:
CLB – none
NYC – Ronald Matarrita 64′

Ejections:
CLB – none
NYC – Alexander Callens 52′

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