Chad Marshall and Eddie Gaven scored six minutes apart early in the second half to erase a deficit inflicted by a header from ex-Crew forward Brian McBride, and Columbus held that 2-1 lead for 35 minutes with tough tackling and a pair of good saves from keeper Will Hesmer.
Four times during the regular season the Crew had surrendered the first goal yet rallied to win, a mark unmatched by any other MLS team. By stepping up its pressure in the offensive half of the field it won a free kick that Guillermo Barros Schelotto floated for Marshall to head home, and triggered a mixup among Fire defenders that Columbus exploited when Eddie Gaven collected a knockdown from Alejandro Moreno and drilled a shot that skipped inside the far post.
Chicago, unfazed by a loud, rabid crowd swathed in black and gold, unbalanced Columbus in the first half by cohesive defending and consistent possession. Hesmer saved a shot from Justin Mapp as the Crew scrapped their way back into the game, and midway through the half Marshall headed a chance wide and Schelotto clipped the top of the crossbar with a free kick.
Chicago scored in the 29th minute with the Crew defense reforming and right back Frankie Hejduk appealing to referee Terry Vaughn after being knocked down by Cuauhtemoc Blanco as they vied for the ball. Blanco tossed a barely legal throw-in up the left side for Mapp to float a superb first-time cross that McBride soared over Danny O'Rourke to glance into the net.
The goal silenced Crew fans, many of whom had taunted McBride -- the heart and soul of the franchise during its first eight seasons -- with chants of "Traitor!" A small section of Fire fans celebrated wildly and set off red flares that spread smoke throughout the stadium and cast yet another dramatic element onto a memorable scene.
Columbus ended the half a goal down, but came out for the second half more pumped up than perhaps Chicago thought possible. Gaven won a free kick on the right side in the 49th minute and Schelotto's swerving ball curved for Marshall to nod firmly past Fire keeper Jon Busch, another ex-Crew player who had been Marshall's roommate when they played together.
Chicago tried to stabilize the match and regain some rhythm, but with Chris Rolfe stymied and Blanco off his game, it couldn't keep the ball long enough. Brian Carroll controlled central midfield and with Robbie Rogers and Gaven, especially, tracking back, Columbus controlled the flanks.
Gaven got his reward for an excellent all-around display in the 55th minute. Schelotto returned a pass from Moreno, and Moreno headed down a ball for Gaven to run onto, touch once, and hit on the bounce past Busch. A deafening roar greeted the goal, the Crew bench erupted in celebration, and scenes of near-delirium envisioned by the late Lamar Hunt, who spearheaded construction of the stadium, ensued everywhere except for a tiny section of fans in red.
Busch deflected a hard shot from Rogers to keep Chicago in the game. Hesmer smothered a close-range re-direction from McBride with 17 minutes left, and in the final minute of regulation substitute Marco Pappa, fresh off the bench, fired a low shot Hesmer covered cleanly. In stoppage-time, Pappa found a shot again but fired it wide.
On four previous occasions the Crew had played for the conference title, and always it had fallen short. The final whistle triggered a frenzied celebration on the field and bedlam in the stands. What was once billed as "America's Hardest-Working Team" had taken one more step toward being honored as the best.
Nov. 12 in Columbus, Ohio
Columbus 2 Chicago 1. Goals: Marshall (Schelotto) 49, Gaven (Moreno, Schelotto) 55; McBride (Mapp) 30.
Columbus -- Hesmer, Hejduk, Padula, Marshall, O'Rourke, Gaven (Ito, 88), Carroll, Evans, Rogers, Schelotto (Ekpo, 81), Moreno.
Chicago --Busch, Prideaux (Nyarko, 70), Conde, Segares (Banner, 79), Soumare, Rolfe (Pappa, 90), Pause, Thorrington, Mapp, F- Blanco, McBride.
Yellow cards - Columbus -- O'Rourke 55, Hesmer 90+; Chicago --Soumare 22, Seagares 48, Prideaux 67.