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Revs flash championship-caliber class, down Crew in first leg of semis

The New England Revolution confirmed their championship credentials on Saturday, dismantling the Columbus Crew, 4-2, at Crew Stadium. Here are three thoughts on a frantic MLS Eastern Conference semifinal opener:

1. Revs are for real

A year ago, in its first playoff series in four years, New England gave eventual-champion Sporting Kansas City all it could handle. Twelve months’ growth and the arrival of U.S. national team midfielder Jermaine Jones has turned the Revs into legitimate MLS Cup favorites (although they’re not the only ones).

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Coach Jay Heaps’ squad entered Saturday’s match on a 9-1-1 run but faced a hot host. The Crew closed out the regular season 8-2-1 and were gelling under first-year coach Gregg Berhalter. In Federico Higuaín, Tony Tchani and Wil Trapp, Columbus seemed to possess just the right combination of midfield skill and steel to neutralize Jones, MLS MVP candidate Lee Nguyen and Scott Caldwell.

In the end, Columbus was somewhat fortunate to lose by only two. New England’s first-half pressure left the Crew unable to build consistently from the back and led to Charlie Davies’ 34th-minute goal — a wide-open header off a Kelyn Rowe free kick. The Revs’ prowess on the counterattack was the key after halftime, as both Nguyen and Davies found space on the run and made Columbus (14-11-10) pay.

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New England (18-13-4) can establish rhythm in an opponent’s half or win possession further back and counter quickly. They can play physically or with grace and in Andrew Farrell and Chris Tierney, the Revolution have outside backs who pose a threat. See Tierney’s gorgeous 51st-minute free kick as evidence. This is a complete team on the rise.

2. Midfield dominance

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Is there a better midfield tandem in MLS right now than Jones and Nguyen? The pair was everywhere on Saturday, starting form Nguyen’s early nutmeg of Crew defender Tyson Wahl and ending with Jones running the length of the field to put a 93rd-minute shot just over the crossbar. Their combined ability to be creative or constructive with the ball after covering immense of amounts of ground is unmatched at the moment, and Columbus had no answer on Saturday.

Farrell nearly scored following that Nguyen nutmeg in the 17th, and Rowe probably should’ve done better with Nguyen’s slick heel pass in the 30th. In the 70th, Nguyen did it himself, taking a feed from Jones in the Revs' half and dribbling all the way to the Crew penalty area before sliding a shot past goalkeeper Steve Clark. It was his 19th goal this season. Playoff performance doesn’t impact the MVP race, but Saturday left no doubt that the Texan is in the same class as the other contenders. 

Jones was the force of nature we’ve come to expect. Tireless and impactful, he drew four fouls, took five shots and was a constant and imposing presence. Since the German-born U.S. midfielder joined New England in August, the club is 9-1-1 (7-0-1 when he starts). The only loss: a 1-0 September setback in Columbus, where Jones played only a half.

3. Columbus has work to do

The Crew are ditching their cheesy ‘America’s Hardest Working Team’ slogan as part of an overdue rebrand, but it may want to maintain that ethos for at least another week. It has a mountain to climb in New England, where it likely will have to win by three to advance to the Eastern finals (a 5-3 win would do the trick as well thanks to the new away-goals tiebreaker, but that scoreline seems pretty unlikely).

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Columbus didn’t buckle under the deficits it faced Saturday. Justin Meram scored less than 15 minutes after Tierney doubled New England’s lead. And Higuaín’s cheeky chip of a penalty kick deep into second-half stoppage time showed that the confidence hadn’t completely disappeared. But this isn’t a championship-caliber club, at least not yet. Berhalter has done well to create a new culture, but the lack of a striker capable of either holding the ball or getting behind a defense hurt on Saturday.

In back, Wahl represented a significant step down from Costa Rican Giancarlo González, who transferred to Palermo in August. And a crowd of under 10,000 for the Crew’s first home playoff game in four years — even if it was a cold, windy day in central Ohio — was a small sign that this franchise still has a ways to go. Ambitious owner Anthony Precourt, who took over last year, is intent on getting there. The Revolution, meanwhile, appear to have nearly arrived.