Monday November 23rd, 2015

The Supporters Shield winners are in trouble and the Columbus Crew, thanks to heroics at both ends of Sunday’s Eastern Conference championship series opener, are on the cusp of the club’s second MLS Cup final appearance.

Justin Meram scored after only nine seconds and Kei Kamara tacked on a goal in the 85th minute to lift Columbus to a 2–0 triumph over the New York Red Bulls at sold-out MAPFRE Stadium. The visitors were the league’s highest-scoring team during the regular season but were stifled on Sunday, and their vaunted press failed to fluster the Crew. New York will have to overturn that two-goal deficit on Nov. 29 at Red Bull Arena, where it was 13–3–2 in league play this season.

Here are three thoughts from the first game of the Eastern finals:

Meram and Mabwati make their marks

The two-week international break seemed to sap some of the energy from the Red Bulls, but it invigorated Meram and reserve midfielder Cedrick Mabwati, who made the plays that made the difference.

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The opener looked like it was drawn up by Crew coach Gregg Berhalter on the locker room whiteboard. Midfielder Will Trapp, who missed the three Columbus-New York games this year, played a long ball over the top immediately following the kickoff. That’s not typically the Crew’s approach, and the Red Bulls were unprepared. Kamara knocked the pass down with his head, Crew assist leader Ethan Finlay touched it toward Meram and New York’s makeshift center back pairing of Matt Miazga and Ronald Zubar (who replaced the injured Damien Perrinelle) were beaten. Meram was there to smash his shot home.

The Michigan-born midfielder represents his parents’ native Iraq internationally, and he spent the break flying to and from Taiwan for a World Cup qualifier in which he didn’t play. He told The New York Times this week, “I was down. I’m not going to lie … I’m waiting to hear some answers. Right now, I’m looking forward to Sunday. At least I’m fresh.”

It was his seventh goal of the season and the fastest in MLS playoff history. New York (20–11–6) never recovered. The Red Bulls probably would’ve been fine with a one-goal defeat. But enter Mabwati, the quick Congolese international who set up Kamara’s series-winning goal against the Montreal Impact in the conference semis. He spent the break in DR Congo, replaced Meram in the 80th minute and five minutes later destroyed the Red Bulls on a dribbling run toward the right post. Dax McCarty, Gonzalo Verón and then Felipe Martins were left grasping as Mabwati chipped the ball over goalkeeper Luis Robles and onto Kamara’s foot.

WATCH: Crew’s Meram scores fastest goal in MLS playoff history

“I thought we were a little bit too passive at times in the second half and we were urging our players to keep going, making those runs, because we knew we’d be able to catch them,” Berhalter told ESPN.

Free-wheeling Columbus locks it down

The Crew’s attacking focus often leads to some adventures in back. Columbus (17–12–8) yielded 53 goals this year, the second-worst total among the 12 playoff teams, and only New York City FC gave up more goals at home.

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So naturally, the Crew put the shackles around MLS’s most potent attack on Sunday, and it did so without suspended starting center back Gaston Sauro. Tyson Wahl filled in admirably, goalie Steve Clark made a couple nice saves and Columbus gave New York a taste of its own medicine, pressing the Red Bulls in midfield and knocking them off their rhythm. As a result, striker Bradley Wright-Phillips saw very little of the ball and the visitors were able to put only two shots on target.

“We’ve been improving defensively,” Berhalter said. “There’s a contradiction between playing offensively and not letting in goals, and today we had both of those.”

New York is accustomed to winning the ball higher up the field, but Columbus was able to play quicker passes on Sunday, and it was willing to be a bit more direct in order to push the Red Bulls back. There, New York’s buildup frequently was stymied. Although the visitors did create an early chance off a turnover by Crew defender Harrison Afful, Clark was up to the task and denied Sacha Kljestan from close range. The Red Bulls’ next decent stretch came around the hour mark, but Mike Grella hit the top of the crossbar on a looping header, Kljestan missed a couple of shots and then Grella sent a tame effort straight at Clark.

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New York was denied its away goal and was shut out for the first time since May. That will give Columbus a boost in confidence, and on the scoreboard, for next Sunday’s decider.

The Red Bulls face their final exam

This has been a dream season for New York. What began in acrimony and angst with the appointment of sporting director Ali Curtis, his dismissal of club icon Mike Petke and the arrival of coach Jesse Marsch has evolved into a campaign that altered the DNA of this organization for the better.

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The Red Bulls once were known (and notorious) for outsized personalities, upheaval, a lack of chemistry and inevitable playoff failure. Now it’s a unified team with a direction and identity. And it’s one that’s easy to like.

There’s little doubt that Curtis and Marsch will continue down the path they’ve chosen. This season already has exceeded expectations. But for a long-suffering fan base, a long-awaited league title probably never has felt closer. New York was a heavy underdog to Columbus at the 2008 MLS Cup final, which was the club’s only appearance in the league showpiece. This year, the Red Bulls have looked like a championship team. There are no smoke and mirrors in Harrison, N.J. This is a balanced outfit that can attack and defend, and there’s plenty of leadership and self-belief.

That’s what’s on the line next Sunday. These opportunities are rare. New York has been outstanding at Red Bull Arena this year. Only FC Dallas won more games on home soil. The stands will be full and the pressure will be on. Past Red Bulls teams folded under similar circumstances. This edition will get the chance to prove it’s different after only one year under a new regime.

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