HARRISON, N.J. – The Columbus Crew survived a late offensive flurry and a Bradley Wright-Phillips header off the post in the dying seconds of the game to secure a berth in the 2015 MLS Cup final on Sunday. The Crew lost 1-0 to the Red Bulls on the night, but advanced to the championship game with a 2-1 win on aggregate. The game will be played at the Crew’s home MAPFRE Stadium against the Portland Timbers, but let’s start with three thoughts on a chilly night at Red Bull Arena.
The mental battle was key
This is playoff soccer. The very nature of the competition, the stakes involved, and the revved-up crowd at Red Bull Arena more or less ensure the game will be intense and full of physical challenges. The line between a team that succeeds in these conditions and one that falters often comes down to mentality, and that was the Red Bulls’ undoing on Sunday.
The first half contained numerous hefty challenges to go around, each of which nudged the on-field hostility up a few notches even as the temperature dropped. The Crew’s Harrison Afful took down Mike Grella, Justin Meram shoved Felipe, Waylon Francis dug in to stop a service to Kljestan, and finally Kei Kamara and Kemar Lawrence traded tough blows on the touchline.
Each of these incidents varied in strength–not to mention legality–but how the Red Bulls responded said more. The focus after each incident seemed to be less about getting the ball back and cutting into Columbus’s 2-0 series advantage and more about evening the unwritten score. By the end of the first half, RBNY had 60% of the possession but just one shot on target, Wright-Phillips’s meek header in the final seconds of the half. Put simply, the Red Bulls didn’t seem to have a sense of urgency in the first half, and it came back to bite them at the end.
Columbus dominated the flanks
Columbus right back Afful followed up a sterling performance in the first leg with another great one at Red Bull Arena. On the opposite side, Francis made numerous key plays to hold the Red Bulls’ attack at bay. Ethan Finlay and Meram roved intelligently on the attacking end, and Kamara had all the service he needed to play a big role in the game.
For New York, Wright-Phillips went large swaths of the half without ever touching the ball or being involved in any kind of attacking movement. Columbus consistently found space behind Lawrence and Sal Zizzo on the defensive end. The contrast between the two sides says all you need to know about how this game went.
The Crew defense held strong
The Red Bulls powered through one of their best seasons ever in 2015 on the back of a potent attack, scoring a league-high 62 goals over the course of the season. Entering the series against Columbus, it hadn’t been shut out since May 24. Columbus, meanwhile, had the 14th ranked defense in the 20-team league. It gave up an average of 1.5 goals per game in the regular season.
None of that mattered. The Crew stifled any and all life out of the Red Bulls’ attack for the vast majority of the series, and that more than anything was the key to the aggregate win. Goalkeeper Steve Clark and the Columbus back four deserve a fair amount of credit, as do the two-man defensive midfield combo of Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani that made things hard on the Red Bulls in the middle of the park. But one must also acknowledge the game planning and preparation of Crew coach Gregg Berhalter, himself a former defender, in getting his team ready to deal with the multitude of threats New York boasted.