Columbus Crew SC didn’t suffer from a dearth of chances to keep their magical playoff run alive. They just didn’t convert them. And in the end, it proved to be their undoing.
The Black and Gold fell 1-0 to Toronto FC in the second leg of the Eastern Conference finals and also on aggregate. Jozy Altidore’s 60th minute goal ultimately propelled the Reds to their second consecutive MLS Cup Final, which they’ll host on December 9th (4 PM, ESPN).
Horrific Finishing Dooms Columbus Crew SC as Playoff Run Comes to an End
Manager Gregg Berhalter introduced a tactical wrinkle for this game, with his side coming out in a 3-4-2-1 formation. It included Lalas Abubakar joining Jonathan Mensah and Josh Williams in central defense, his first start of the postseason. Previous to this match, the Ghanaian rookie played in just 16 minutes in the playoffs and made six starts during the regular season.
The formational realignment also saw Pedro Santos move to the left hand side after his previous starts for the Black and Gold came at right wing. That forced Harrison Afful into a more advanced role on the right in the midfield four. Mohammed Abu joined Wil Trapp in front of the defense, filling in for the suspended Artur. Justin Meram tucked in and assumed more of a central playmaker role alongside Federico Higuain and underneath Ola Kamara.
Despite a slight deficit in possession, Columbus enjoyed the more promising opportunities around goal throughout the opening portions of the game. It included creating three chances in the first 20 minutes compared to none for TFC.
And in the 21st minute, it nearly resulted in a crucial away goal. Higuain made a perfect diagonal pass to Kamara who then laid it off to a wide open Meram. But he mishit the initial touch in the box, enabling Michael Bradley to track back and tackle it away.
The home side nearly made Crew SC rue that missed chance to draw first blood. A well-placed Victor Vazquez corner in the 25th minute forced Williams into a foul on Drew Moor. It left referee Ismail Elfath no choice but to point to the spot.
But then it came time for Zack Steffen to showcase his quality defending penalty kicks. He proved it in the club’s win over Atlanta United in the knockout round. And this time, he dove correctly to his right in denying Vazquez the opening goal of this series.
It marked Steffen’s sixth spot kick save of the 13 he faced in 2017 counting both the regular season and playoffs.
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) November 30, 2017
Toronto’s chances received a bit of a blow early in the second half when Altidore suffered what appeared to be an ankle injury after colliding with Afful. Initially, it looked as if the 28-year-old striker would be forced to come off. But with so much on the line, he merely changed to a thicker boot and shouldered on.
His fortitude paid off. At the hour mark, TFC goalkeeper nailed a long ball which Sebastian Giovinco collected just outside the Crew SC box. His hold up play drew Mensah towards him, after which he deftly back-heeled the ball to Altidore. He then combined with Vazquez who found him on the give and go, when he then knocked it past Steffen far post for the lead.
Jozy gives Toronto a 1-0 lead in the series. pic.twitter.com/AXBMzuWK38
— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) November 30, 2017
The story of this game for Crew SC, though, is missed opportunities. And the poster child for the situation was none other than Meram. His poor touch in the first half prevented Columbus from going up early. And in the 80th minute, with a chance to give his side a series clinching away goal, the ball came to him via a few ricochets off a corner. But his shot from about 12 yards out sailed over the cross bar.
But he wasn’t the only one. Kamara had his own chance to send Crew SC through to MLS Cup via away goals late. Seven minutes after Meram’s miss, the Norwegian number nine found himself unmarked at the far post with the ball coming towards him off a cross. But he was unable to connect and it veered harmlessly away from the goal.
Wow. Columbus so close here. pic.twitter.com/6bPFJnVIwc
— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) November 30, 2017
The lack of quality finishing reared its ugly head throughout the playoffs. That’s evident in the fact that Crew SC’s only goals during the entire postseason came in their 4-1 win over New York City FC in the first leg of the conference semifinals. In the other 390 minutes, they couldn’t register a single score of any kind. That’s not a recipe for success and as culpable a reason as any for their elimination.
What It Means
Now that their path to potentially hoisting the club’s second MLS Cup is over, the biggest story surrounding Crew SC is their future in Columbus. Owner Anthony Precourt remains committed to relocate the club to Austin, TX despite legitimate and concrete steps submitted by city leaders in Ohio’s capital city to keep the team there. It included a proposal on Wednesday for a potential new stadium on three suggested sites within the city limits.
Through it all, the effort from fans both within Columbus and the broader MLS and American soccer community to #SaveTheCrew will remain strong. The city proved during this captivating postseason push that professional soccer is viable and its supporters as vibrant as any. As a result, this movement will continue to make noise and serve as one of the biggest off-field stories for the sport heading into 2018.