A 2-0 lead from the first leg proved to be just enough for Columbus to capture the Eastern Conference title despite losing the second leg, 1-0, at Red Bull Arena Sunday. The Red Bulls couldn’t
break through until the third minute of stoppage time, when substitute Anatole Abang headed in from close range. They nearly equalized in stoppage time when a Bradley Wright-Phillips
attempt dribbled off the base of the post.
Here are three
takeaways from a dramatic night at Red Bull Arena:
1. Columbus shows how to neutralize Red Bulls' pressure.
The Red Bulls were pushed back by Crew SC for most of the
first half and only a pair of excellent Luis Robles saves on Kei Kamara and a crucial block by Matt Miazga kept the score 0-0.
Robles thwarted Kamara with a kick save
in the eighth minute and dove to his right to push away a long, low shot in the 38th. In between, Miazga stopped Kamara from close range after Ethan Finlay had cut back a ball from
the byline that Kamara hit first-time.
Runs forward by right back Harrison Afful set up the two shots that were saved, and the Miazga block resulted from a ball played through
midfield by Tony Tchani after he’d escaped a challenge from Mike Grella.
A recurring theme of both legs was Crew SC’s ability to neutralize the vaunted Red Bull
pressure by avoiding tackles and double-teams and quickly finding teammates running into vacant spaces.
2. This Red Bull is not a good chaser.
After conceding the
earliest goal in MLS playoff history nine seconds into the first leg, the Red Bulls played more than two full games before Abang scored in the 93rd minute of the second game.
York’s attack improved in the second half on Sunday; it took 15 shots after producing just two in the first 45 minutes. Yet before New York’s very late flurry the only truly dangerous
threat was a long shot by Sacha Kljestan that skipped in front of keeper Steve Clark as he dove to his right to push it away. A minute before Abang’s goal, the ball ping-ponged
around the penalty area and bounced off Crew SC defender Michael Parkhurst twice before it was cleared.
Grella was seldom a threat in either game. Lloyd Sam sharpened his
game in the second leg and lobbed in a few dangerous crosses but found very little success when he cut inside to shoot. He shot wide on a setup from Kljestan. Wright-Phillips and Abang both headed
over the crossbar on good serves.
Some smart, composed defensive play by Crew SC shut down much of what the Red Bull attack likes to do, but New York didn’t lack for chances in
either leg. What it did lack was the crisp, sharp finishing that helped amass a league-leading 62 goals in the regular season. New York netted just three times in four playoff matches.
3. Berhalter leads rebound after 2014 playoff collapse.
After serving as a Galaxy assistant coach as he wound up his playing career in 2011, Crew SC head coach Gregg
Berhalter took up the mantle of another Anschutz Entertainment Group sports property, Swedish club IF Hammarby. He lasted a year and a half; the club dismissed him in July 2013, and he was among
the candidates interviewed by Columbus after it fired Robert Warzycha two months later.
Former Crew SC players Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Brad Friedel were among
those considered for the job. Also on the list were Jesse Marsch, Tab Ramos, Richie Williams and Frank Yallop. Instead, majority owner Anthony Precourt opted for
Berhalter, who last year guided the Crew into third place with a 14-10-10 record (52 points) and in 2015 took second at 15-11-8 (53 points). He was a Coach of the Year finalist in 2014 but lost
out to Ben Olsen of D.C. United.
In last year’s playoffs New England blasted Columbus, 4-2, in the first leg and went on to win the series, 7-3, on aggregate. Berhalter
downplayed that failure as motivation for this season, yet midfielder Justin Meram in his postgame comments did allude to 2014.
“We put ourselves in great position being the
third seed last year and we're like alright, here we go, and we came out with a stinker,” he said.
“This year, we do the same thing, put ourselves in the same position and we knew that all that's behind us. Now it's time to really focus and you know we played against two really incredible
TRIVIA. Of the nine surviving MLS teams that started up with the league in 1996, the Red Bulls are one of three to reach just one MLS
Cup final (2008). The others are Colorado (1997) and FC Dallas (2010).
Nov. 29 in Harrison, New Jersey NY Red Bulls 1, Columbus 0. Goal:
Abang 90+3. NY Red Bulls – Robles; Zizzo, Zubar, Miazga, Lawrence (Abang, 72), Felipe (S. Wright-Phillips, 82), McCarty, Sam, Grella (Veron, 62), Kljestan. B. Wright-Phillips. Columbus – Clark; Afful (Klute, 77), Sauro, Parkhurst, Francis; Tchani, Trapp, Meram (Saied, 86), Finlay (Wahl, 89), Higuain, Kamara. Yellow Cards: NY Red Bulls –Felipe 28, Zizzo 85; Columbus –Sauro 67. Referee: Baldomero Toledo. Att.: 25,219. (Columbus wins 2-1 on aggregate.)