Columbus Crew SC Whirlwind 2018 Season Ends With Conference Semifinal Defeat

Crew SC Whirlwind 2018 Season
HARRISON, NEW JERSEY- November 11: Aaron Long #33 of New York Red Bulls beats goalkeeper Zack Steffen #23 of Columbus Crew for the New York Red Bulls first goal during the New York Red Bulls Vs Columbus Crew SC MLS Eastern Conference Semifinal second leg match at Red Bull Arena on November 11, 2018 in Harrison, New Jersey. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

Harrison, NJ (November 11, 2018)Columbus Crew SC‘s 2018 season, one perhaps more known for developments off the field than on it, is at an end.

The Black and Gold fell to the New York Red Bulls by a score of 3-0 in Sunday’s second leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals. It eliminated them from the MLS Cup playoffs due to a 3-1 aggregate score over both legs.

Columbus Crew SC Whirlwind 2018 Season Ends With Defeat to New York Red Bulls

Manager Gregg Berhalter trotted out the tried and true 4-2-3-1 that’s been a staple for the club this season. He deviated from it slightly in the first leg when he deployed a 4-4-2 during the first half to give Federico Higuain some rest. But Pipa returned to the starting XI this time around. The other two changes were Gaston Sauro replacing Josh Williams in central defense as well as Pedro Santos coming in at right wing.

Columbus came into this game knowing that any loss by one goal, at the least, would precipitate extra time. But conceding early would certainly put them under added pressure of losing by more than one. That’s exactly what happened, though. In the 17th minute, Sean Davis curled a free kick into the box that Daniel Royer headed down centrally. Alex Muyl then came onto it and redirected it past Zack Steffen to tie things up 1-1 on aggregate.

It was the latest example of Crew SC’s vulnerability on set pieces. Both goals they conceded against D.C. United were initiated on free kicks. And the goal which put RBNY ahead in the second leg underscored continued issues defending in those kinds of situations.

The goal wasn’t too much of a concern for Columbus. If the scoreline held, the two sides would play an extra 30 minutes of soccer and possibly contest a penalty shootout. Given Crew SC’s success in spot-kicks over the past two seasons, they’d probably welcome such a scenario.

Even if they conceded once more, there was still light at the end of the tunnel. All the Black and Gold would need then is a single goal and they’d advance to the conference finals via the away goals tiebreaker.

Royer Goes Off

And so Royer’s 73rd-minute tally in which he danced past defender Jonathan Mensah and calmly placed the ball underneath Steffen wasn’t the end of the world. What inevitably will go down as the dagger was his second three minutes later. It involved the Austrian once again running roughshod over Mensah while blasting a shot outside the box that Steffen struggled to diagnose.

Columbus pushed forward in search of the goals necessary to advance. What they found was a goalkeeper in Luis Robles who was dialed in and ready to keep anything out of his net. He made three crucial saves late in the second half to preserve the shutout and ensure his side’s spot among the league’s final four.

The result gives the Red Bulls their first-ever postseason victory over Columbus. It will also mark their first appearance in the conference finals in three years. They face Atlanta United who knocked off New York City FC 4-1 on aggregate in the other conference semifinal.

Three Takeaways

Set piece struggles: Defending set pieces continues to be a glaring weakness for the Black and Gold. It’s a big reason they needed a penalty shootout to advance to the conference semifinals given Nick DeLeon’s extra time equalizer came off a free kick. And once again, those problems reared their ugly head early in Sunday’s second leg.

Robles Outduels Steffen: Steffen came into this game less than a week removed from winning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year. Robles was one of the candidates and one could make the case the league snubbed him given that some of his numbers were better than Steffen. Tonight, he proved his quality in pitching a shutout. And the Red Bulls will need more of the same against an Atlanta United team boasting a bevy of attacking talent.

We’re Not Done Yet: For most of this season, Crew fans had a dark cloud over their heads. This was due to the very real possibility that the club was going to bolt Columbus for Austin, TX at the conclusion of the season. But then Jimmy Haslam and Pete Edwards came along with intentions to buy the team and keep them in central Ohio. It was a welcome development and one made possible by one of the most inspiring grassroots campaigns in the history of American sports. Obviously, there are details associated with the transaction that still needs hashing out. And it’ll be interesting to keep track of those negotiations during the off-season.

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