Breaking down Sunday's Red Bulls-Crew MLS playoff game

By Ridge Mahoney

Nine times this season the Red Bulls have won a regular-season game that will be good enough to win the Eastern Conference finals outright or send the series to extra time. A win by three goals will suffice and a 2-0 score at the end of 90 minutes triggers an additional half-hour. On the Columbus side of the ledger, eight of its results would produce either elimination or extra time.

Eastern Conference Finals, Second Leg
New York-Columbus Red Bull Arena Sunday 7:30 p.m. ET
(Fox Sports 1, Fox Deportes)

Columbus leads, 2-0.

The Red Bulls didn’t score a goal in the first leg at Columbus and have yet to shut out Crew SC in four meetings this season, so their task is formidable.

Stunned by Crew SC scoring the earliest goal in MLS playoff history nine seconds after kickoff, the Red Bulls struggled to create clear chances. Outside mids Mike Grella and Lloyd Sam, who produced a combined 19 goals and 14 assists during the regular season, seldom found enough space and time to threaten, and Sacha Kljestan failed to put either of two good opportunities on frame.

“We know what we did wrong,” said Grella after a training session on Wednesday. “We watched plenty of video today. It was a tough game, for sure, credit to them, tough atmosphere. It’s tough when you give up a goal so early on. But this is a test, one of many tests we’ve passed all year. It’s maybe our biggest test yet. We need to enjoy this moment and take this test on.

A dominant season at Red Bull Arena (12-3-2) produced at least two goals in each of the last nine games, and forward Bradley Wright-Phillips tied Crew SC counterpart Kei Kamara for second in goals scored at home (13). Yet the Red Bulls attack hasn’t been sharp in the playoffs. Both legs of the conference semifinals yielded 1-0 defeats of D.C. United, and last Sunday in Columbus only Grella and defender Matt Miazga got shots on target. Rather than work intricate combinations through the middle with Kljestan as the focal point, the Red Bulls resorted to crosses that seldom bore fruit.

Midfielder Dax McCarty struggled through a poor passing performance (66 percent, about 20 percent lower than normal according to and the Red Bulls need to re-open the supply lines to Wright-Phillips, who managed just two shots. The second leg has been sold out (25,219) for more than a week and backed by their rowdy fans the Red Bulls will try to exploit their high-pressure approach that has smothered so many opponents this season.

The intensity level can certainly match that of Crew SC in the first leg, which head coach Gregg Berhalter said was “extremely high.” He doesn’t foresee any dropoff from his players Sunday. “We’re focused,” he said during his postgame comments.

“I don’t have to keep the focus of this group. They’re focused on the [second] game already. That’s not going to be challenging. “In terms of the game, obviously Red Bulls will be gunning for the first goal. They need to get it. We need to be patient, we need to keep moving the ball around and match their intensity early in the game.”

Quelling Kamara and Co. while testing Crew SC keeper Steve Clark is a tall order. Even if outside backs Waylon Francis and Harrison Afful -- who drilled a good chance wide of the far post in the first leg -- concentrate on defense, Crew SC can strike efficiently on the counter when wide men Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay get rolling. New York will likely need a few big saves from 2015 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Luis Robles to stay in the series.

The team spirit instilled by Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch, named as MLS Coach of the Year on Wednesday, is to be examined. Winning the Supporters’ Shield honed the Red Bulls’ powers of stamina and resiliency; now their assignment is one of desperation and survival.

“I believe in every single one of us," said Grella. "We have what it takes to do it."

Regular-Season Meetings
March 28 – Columbus 1 (Tchani), New York 2 (B. Wright-Phillips, Grella).
July 4 – Columbus 2 (Finlay 2), New York 1 (Abang).
Oct. 3 – New York 2 (Sam, B. Wright-Phillips), Columbus 1 (Meram).

Playoff Results
Conference Semifinals, First Leg

Nov. 1 -- D.C. United 0, New York 1 (McCarty).
Nov. 8 – New York 1 (B. Wright-Phillips), D.C. United 0.
(Red Bulls win, 2-0.)
Conference Semifinals, Second Leg
Nov. 1 -- Montreal 2 (Bernier, Venegas), Columbus 1 (Higuain).
Nov. 8 -- Columbus 3 (Kamara 2, Finlay), Montreal 1 (Duka) OT.
(Columbus wins, 4-3, on aggregate.)
Conference Final, First Leg
Nov. 22 – Columbus 2 (Meram, Kamara), New York 0.

Stat Leaders (including playoffs)
Columbus – Kei Kamara 25 goals, Ethan Finlay 13 assists, Steve Clark 130 saves.
New York – Bradley Wright-Phillips 18 goals, Sacha Kljestan 15 assists, Luis Robles 93 saves.

The winner will reach just its second MLS Cup final. These two members of the league’s original 10 teams met in the 2008 finale won by Columbus, 3-0.

Bottom Line
There’s enough firepower in the Red Bull lineup to get the necessary goals but the back line just hasn’t been as secure with Ronald Zubar replacing injured centerback Damian Perrinelle.

New York 3, Columbus 1.
(Aggregate 3-3: Columbus advances on away goal.)
1 comment about "Breaking down Sunday's Red Bulls-Crew MLS playoff game".
  1. beautiful game, November 27, 2015 at 6:38 p.m.

    Higuain, not mentioned in the article, is the key to Columbus success. When he's in synch, there is no one on the NYRB squad that can match him.

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