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  • It was a long Sunday for the Crew but they advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals and will play against Toronto.
By Brian Straus
November 05, 2017

The Columbus Crew’s captivating MLS Cup playoff run—which is taking place in the shadow of owner Anthony Precourt’s dalliance with Austin, Texas—will continue. But only just barely.

The Crew labored on Sunday at Yankee Stadium, which they entered with a three-goal aggregate advantage and exited as lucky second-leg losers. Host New York City FC could’ve—and probably should’ve—scored more during its 2-0 win. But the lack of a finishing touch that coach Patrick Vieira lamented after last week’s loss continued to plague the Bronx Blues in Sunday’s Eastern Conference semifinal decider. 

As a result, Columbus won the two-game series, 4-3 on aggregate, and advanced to the Eastern finals for the second time in three seasons. They’ll play top-seeded Toronto FC. But first, here are three thoughts from the Crew’s victorious defeat.

Shaky Crew defense gives NYCFC life

Columbus coach Gregg Berhalter promised following the 4-1 rout in the series opener that was “no chance” his team would play with “11 guys inside the penalty box” in NYC. His intentions were good. But the Crew’s poor execution at the back rendered Berhalter’s plans irrelevant. Save a couple brief stretches, it was all hands on the defensive deck for the visitors, whose inability to make a few basic plays left them scrambling.

“It was an onslaught for the most part,” Crew captain Wil Trapp told ESPN afterward.

NYCFC (17-10-9) grabbed the momentum and took a vital 15th-minute lead when Crew center back Josh Williams misplayed a clearance then clipped winger Rodney Wallace inside the penalty area. David Villa then beat goalkeeper Zack Steffen with a perfectly-hit spot kick. In the 53rd, NYCFC took advantage of another defensive error. The Crew’s Jonathan Mensah slipped, which gave Wallace the space to find right back Andraž Struna in space. The Slovenian took a shot that Mensah tried to clear with his head. Instead, the ball flew backward past Steffen and left NYC a goal away from advancing.

The Crew (17-13-7) finished the regular season with the worst defensive record among the six Eastern playoff qualifiers, and they looked like it.

Mensah was bypassed on a 67th-minute counterattack by Jack Harrison, but the Englishman chose to test Steffen instead of passing and saw his bid saved. The Crew continued to struggle. They were unable to pass their way out of pressure and had difficulty defending crosses from open play. NYC’s Maxi Morález beat Trapp to a close-range, back-post header but failed to connect, and then Wallace hit the post in the 70th.

Berhalter inserted an extra defender, Lalas Abubakar, in the 88th, and that helped Columbus grind out the two-goal defeat it needed.

“I don’t think we did a good enough job to really balance the game,” Trapp said.

It was barely enough to win the series.

New York playoff failure

The Red Bulls, eliminated earlier in the day by TFC, aren’t the only New York (area) team now saddled with an unwanted label. No Big Apple outfit wants to look small under the spotlight. But at the end of its third season, NYCFC may be unwittingly establishing a tradition of stumbling in the clutch.

Sunday was NYCFC’s first MLS playoff win. But that’s a technicality. It’s showing in Columbus was so poor—from center back Alexander Callens' silly red card to the lackadaisical defending that set the table for Harrison Afful’s (eventual) series-winning goal—that the second-leg result will do little to change the overall narrative. NYCFC couldn’t finish when it mattered most and made the series’ biggest mistake.

The Blues were the higher seed in last year’s conference semis and got blasted, 7-0 on aggregate, by TFC. There was the 4-1 loss in Columbus. And in the three U.S. Open Cup games in club history, NYC is winless (0-2-1). Two of its eliminations came at the hands of the NASL’s New York Cosmos.
That's not good enough for a club with so much talent and in which so much is invested. Entering season No. 4, NYC’s misfortune in cup competition is likely going to become a bigger story.

Columbus has a real shot at this

TFC was such a massive favorite to make the MLS Cup final when the playoffs began, but its performance against the Red Bulls was shaky and it’ll now be missing the suspended Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore in the opening leg against the Crew on Nov. 21.

And that game will be in Columbus, where fans will be backing their team for 90 minutes, as well as the effort to save the club from moving to Austin in 2019. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

“We repurposed our mission right now, and it’s solely to play for the fans and give them as many home games as we can and let them enjoy something,” Berhalter said after the first-leg win over NYC.

They’ll have at least one more and, if they can get past TFC, two—the Eastern champ is guaranteed to host the MLS Cup final. Is this a team of destiny? Clubs with their “name on the cup” tend to get breaks like Callens’ red card, the Giovinco and Altidore suspensions and the five shots that have struck the woodwork behind Steffen so far during this playoff run and bounced away.

They’ll need to be better defensively, obviously, but have the opportunity to build an advantage against short-handed TFC in the first leg. If they do, maybe they’ll have learned some lessons from Sunday.

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