• NYCFC didn't lock down defensively after a game-changing red card and paid the price in a lopsided first leg of the MLS Eastern Conference semifinals in Columbus.
By Grant Wahl
October 31, 2017

Just two weeks after its owner announced he could move the team to Austin, Texas, the Columbus Crew continued its storybook MLS postseason run on Tuesday with a rousing 4-1 victory over NYCFC in the first leg of the MLS Eastern Conference semifinals.

An early rebound goal by Ola Kamara put Columbus ahead 1-0, but the key play of the game was a 52nd-minute red card on NYCFC’s Alexander Callens for an elbow to the head of Justin Meram. (The call, which was correct, was made after video review.) Artur and Meram scored in the next 17 minutes to put Columbus up 3-0.

The momentum appeared to have shifted when David Villa took advantage of a Jonathan Mensah mistake to make it 3-1 and give shorthanded NYCFC an away goal. But then Harrison Afful went on a mazy run in the box in stoppage time to score one of the goals of the postseason.

With a 4-1 advantage heading to New York City for the return leg, Columbus should feel confident about its chances of advancing to MLS’s final four.

Here are three thoughts on the game:

Why on earth didn’t NYCFC shut up shop after the red card?

A one-goal deficit would have been perfectly fine for coach Patrick Vieira’s team, and he could have pulled everyone back after the red card and tried to keep a 1-0 scoreline. But NYCFC’s fullbacks kept pushing forward, and Columbus punished them for it severely, filling the vacated space and scoring on the break. Once NYCFC went down 3-0, Vieira had to go for an away goal—and got it. But the stoppage time goal by Afful was a back-breaker.

Vieira isn’t usually a naïve coach, but his choices after the red card certainly seemed naïve, and now NYCFC is in real trouble.

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NYCFC’s defense had a night to forget

Goalkeeper Sean Johnson has had a decent season for NYCFC, but he struggled mightily on Tuesday. Johnson could have done better on the first Columbus goal had he not provided the rebound directly to Kamara. But the goalkeeper’s worst play of the night came on Meram’s goal that put Columbus ahead 3-0. Instead of stopping Meram’s shot, which was sent right to Johnson, the keeper merely redirected it into the net.

Meanwhile, center back Callens deserved to be sent off after taking the measure of Meram and delivering an elbow to his face. Not only was NYCFC’s central defense worse after Callens left the field, his suspension for the return leg will make things difficult for an NYCFC team that can’t allow any away goals if it wants to mount a comeback.

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This whole Columbus story seems like destiny

Only 15 days ago, Columbus fans learned the news that owner Anthony Precourt was aiming to move one of MLS’s original teams to Austin in 2019 if a new downtown stadium doesn’t get built in Columbus. Despite finishing the regular season on a positive run, Columbus wasn’t expected to get past Atlanta in last week’s play-in game in front of 67,000 fans on the road. But the Crew won that game on penalties to set up Tuesday’s home game—where the home fans waved #SaveTheCrew banners and made a huge ruckus as their team poured in the goals. Somewhat surprisingly, Precourt (the least popular man in Columbus) attended the game and can only wonder what sort of forces he has unleashed from the soccer gods. From a storyline perspective, it doesn’t get much better than this.

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