It wasn’t pretty in the Bronx, but Columbus Crew SC did what it needed to do to move on in the MLS Cup Playoffs and reinforce its “team of destiny” label.
The Black and Gold fell 2-0 to New York City FC in the second leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Sunday, but secured their spot in the next round with a 4-3 aggregate win over the entirety of the series. The result gives Columbus its second appearance in the conference finals over the past three seasons.
Columbus Crew SC Holds On, Advances to MLS Eastern Conference Finals
Manager Gregg Berhalter made one change from Crew SC’s 4-1 win in the first leg. But it certainly raised some eyebrows as he went with Mohammed Abu in the box-to-box midfield role in place of Artur. The latter turned in arguably his best performance for the club on Tuesday, notching his first goal and exhibiting immense work rate as he led the team with seven tackles.
With the home side needing to make up a three-goal deficit, there was an added necessity associated with chasing the game and putting Columbus on the back foot. The “Cityzens” executed that strategy fairly well from the opening kickoff. They knew that a single early goal would put added pressure on the Black and Gold whose defensive issues are well-documented.
The breakthrough for NYCFC took place just over 15 minutes into the game. After Crew SC center back Josh Williams mishandled a pass towards him in the box, an onrushing Rodney Wallace dispossessed him. Williams then tripped him up, incurring a whistle and a point towards the spot from referee Kevin Stott. David Villa stepped up to the spot and blasted the ball past goalkeeper Zack Steffen to give NYC a 1-0 lead.
After conceding, Columbus gradually reasserted control of the game after NYC took it to them early in the first half. It showed in the fact that all five of their shots in the opening 45 took place between the 20th and 40th minute. The best chance to equalize and score their fifth of the series took place in the 34th minute. Justin Meram got in behind the defense and fired a far post curler that forced a save out of Sean Johnson.
New York City had their own opportunities to double their advantage late in the half. Maximiliano Moralez collected the ball in the box only to hit the left post with his shot. And there were half-hearted shouts for another penalty after the ball appeared to hit Abu’s left arm. But through it all, the home side went into the locker room at halftime sporting a one-goal lead and elevated hope they could get two more.
Not long after the second half commenced, that sentiment became even more pronounced. Eight minutes in, Crew SC’s shakiness at the back came back to bite the team once more. Right back Andraz Struna, whose distribution into the box continuously caused Columbus problems on Sunday, fired a ball towards goal. And center back Jonathan Mensah headed it right into his own net for an own goal.
Throughout the playoffs, one glaring narrative has been how friendly the posts were to Crew SC. In the knockout round, Atlanta United hit the woodwork multiple times in a game where Columbus ultimately advanced on penalties. On Tuesday in the first leg, Villa banged a shot off the post in the first half. It continued on Sunday as the iron proved unkind to NYC on two occasions, including on a Rodney Wallace shot in the 70th minute.
With his club down two and looking to fortify his back line, Berhalter made a shrewd tactical adjustment late in the game. He brought in rookie center back Lalas Abubakar in place of striker Ola Kamara, giving Crew SC a five-man back line for the final 15 minutes of the game. It proved an effective gambit as the club remained stout defensively the rest of the way.
What It Means
After the club’s second triumph over a higher seeded team in this year’s playoffs, Crew SC is beginning to take on the feel of a “team of destiny.” The uncertainty over the team’s future in Columbus has served to rally the players around the fanbase. Their next challenge is undoubtedly its biggest of the postseason against a Toronto FC side that ran away with the Supporters’ Shield.
But they may have an advantage in the first leg. Both Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco will miss the game due to suspension. Altidore saw a red card at halftime after a confrontation in the tunnel with Sacha Kljestan during TFC’s game with the New York Red Bulls. Giovinco received a second half caution and is out due to yellow card accumulation. Those two have a combined 32 goals between the regular season and playoffs.
Columbus now faces Toronto FC in the next round with a spot in MLS Cup on the line. The first leg takes place at MAPFRE Stadium in Ohio’s capital city on Tuesday, November 21st. Kickoff is set for 8 PM ET with ESPN providing television coverage.
David Villa 16′
Andraz Struna (Rodney Wallace) 53′
Andraz Struna –> Sean Okoli 82′
Ronald Matarrita –> Andrea Pirlo 90′
Rodney Wallace –> Jonathan Lewis 90+2′
Justin Meram –> Kekuta Manneh 69′
Ola Kamara –> Lalas Abubakar 76′
Pedro Santos –> Adam Jahn 88′
Rodney Wallace (unsporting behavior) 74′
Mohammed Abu (unsporting behavior) 63′