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Kamara brace, intelligent defense eliminate Montreal from playoffs

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Crew SC's 3-1 Leg 2 semifinal overtime win over Impact was no fluke.

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Columbus Crew SC fans may still be recovering from the thrill of the team's theatrical playoff series victory over the Montreal Impact in the Eastern Conference semifinals Sunday.

Although the excitement of a home win on aggregate goals usually requires no further explanation, that it was the team's first postseason series clinched since the Black & Gold's 2008 MLS Cup-winning campaign contextualizes why the supporters are cherishing this one even more dearly.

"When you look at this atmosphere that we had in this stadium today, that's the beauty of soccer," said head coach and sporting director Gregg Berhalter after defeating the Impact 3-1 in Sunday's second-leg match. "That's when you're proud to be from Columbus and you're proud to put on a show like that for the fans. Because they were amazing. Just as good as the team was, the fans were amazing tonight."

Digging deeper still into the annals of Crew SC postseason soccer, ever since the league's adoption of the aggregate-goals format in 2004 Columbus has neither come from behind to win a two-leg series nor has it ever won one that went to decisive added extra time.

They've always trailed and lost in this era, until now.

Moreover, the away-goals rule only went into effect for MLS postseason play in 2014, a format in which Crew SC's last foray into overtime territory wouldn't have even happened.

The Colorado Rapids would have won outright in regulation of Leg 2 in 2010's conference semis by virtue of its singular road goal in then-named Crew Stadium; the 2-2 aggregate tie would not have gone on to become the crushing post-overtime 5-4 penalty kick loss Columbus actually endured.

Though he was playing for Sporting Kansas City back then, current Crew SC striker and the team's leading goal-scorer Kei Kamara knows how dicey a PK shootout can be, especially after failing to convert a 68th minute attempt from the spot Sunday versus Montreal.

"What penalty?" joked Kamara about his miss during a postgame locker room interview. "Yeah, you don't want to go to penalties [to decide the game]. You know, penalties are 50/50."

Breaking down exactly how Columbus managed to defy its recent playoff misfortune boils down to three key objectives, none groundbreaking yet all essential to getting past Montreal:

  1. Establish rapport between the speedy wide players and Kamara
  2. Make opportune use of substitutions to change the game's feel immediately
  3. Neutralize Ivorian striker Didier Drogba with a well-anchored defensive effort

After a quiet first leg, Kamara showed the ability to rise to the occasion on Sunday. He scored in the fourth minute with Columbus needing to take back the tie. He recovered from a penalty miss that might have caused others to shrink from the stage and secured the victory in the 111th minute with another header.

Columbus found room to work on the left side with the early and late goals, with both of Kamara's scores arising from set-ups spawned on that side: first, a bullet from left back Waylon Francis, and then a tactical chip in traffic from substitute winger Cedrick Mabwati. Both players sent in picturesquely precise shots for a lunging Kamara to exploit.

Along with Harrison Afful at right back, Berhalter expects endline-to-endline scrambling from Francis and Mabwati, whether during opposing counterattacks or in setting up legitimate chances on goal.

"We're always going to be pushing Harrison and Waylon high. Specifically tonight, we just did a great job with our wing progressions and getting Ethan in behind or Harrison in good positions to cross the ball," central midfielder Wil Trapp said.

Objective 1, check.

But selfless as ever, team MVP Kamara deferred to the timeliness of right wing Ethan Finlay's goal in the 77th minute instead of reveling in his own brace.

"The goal that Ethan scored, I mean, my [second] goal is not as big as the goal he scored because obviously that goal put us back into it," Kamara said of Finlay's strike that ended up forcing overtime.

Finlay's role in setting up Kamara's game-icing tally off the Mabwati helper, however, can't be overemphasized. He scored, sure, but Finlay's willingness to help teammates succeed on offense all season long is a big part of why Crew SC is where it is today.

"Ethan did a great job of getting around some pressure and our plan was getting Cedrick the ball out wide because, you know, when he's 1v1 he's pretty, pretty dangerous," raved Trapp about his midfield counterparts. "Ethan found him with a great pass and Cedrick did the rest, and Kei made a great run to the back post."

"They know where I go, and it was a perfect ball," Kamara said. "The keeper was right there. All I was trying to do was get the ball on frame."

Mabwati's contributions were no surprise to Berhalter. He's the perfect fit to change the game in a moment's notice.

"We needed an impact. And it was good to be able to call on guys like that," Berhalter said of his two regulation substitutions in the 74th and 77th minutes. "When you look at [forward] Jack [McInerney], his experience in the league and his proven goal-scoring record, and then Cedrick. You know, we know the talent he has in him … It was fresh legs but it was also a different style of attack. He plays more like a classic winger.

"When he goes at guys, you've got to be afraid because he has some real pace and real dribbling ability. We felt like we really wanted to take advantage of that matchup on the wing and really get him going 1v1 and he did a fantastic job."

Trapp also credited Mabwati with having "completely changed the game" after entering the contest in relief of Justin Meram, and Kamara said McInerney's presence boosted his confidence in the Crew SC offense.

"Just having another striker on the field, it's good because we needed goals," Kamara said. "At that point when he came on, I just knew. And he was talking to me. So I knew every time I went up, somebody's around me to get the rebound."

McInerney's shot that lead to Finlay's goal was a prime example. He had already harried a tired Impact defense and showed good movement, but in this case he broke towards Mabwati on the wing, picked up the loose ball from Kamara, and fired far post. He either had a goal or a shot that might force a rebound. Finlay was there to drive home the latter.

Objective 2, check.

The chorus of boos that rang through MAPFRE Stadium Sunday whenever Montreal's Drogba — a player Kamara called a "legend" after the game—was on the receiving end of a favorable call or physical challenge speaks to his polarizing profile as a footballer.

Drogba's controversial leg-grab of Columbus keeper Steve Clark drew both the ire of Black & Gold fans and a yellow card during Leg 1 of the series, and the Nordecke led the way in voicing displeasure whenever he appeared hobbled or slowed.

Regardless of histrionics, Crew SC knew it had to take his ample skill set out of the game to have a shot at advancing.

"He's a great player. And I think our guys did a phenomenal job on him," Berhalter said. "You know, when I look at the back line and when you look at the midfield, really closing down the second ball that was played into him, they did a great job and for the most part, they really contained him."

With Afful and Francis playing high and wide for much of the game, the task fell to Trapp and fellow central midfielder Tony Tchani to complement what center backs Michael Parkhurst and Gastón Sauro were doing to frustrate Drogba.

"Gastón has quality. He brings a side to our game that we haven't had yet this year," Berhalter said. "And, you know, him in particular, he was battling for every ball and really making it difficult on Drogba in this game."

Sauro played exceptional soccer matching up time and time again in the box against the Montreal attacking trio of Drogba, Ignacio Piatti and Dilly Duka and helping anchor a physical presence in the middle of a back line that has had its vulnerable moments.

That physical play didn't go unnoticed; Sauro did receive a yellow card for a foul in the 30th minute, one which will keep him sidelined for Leg 1 of the conference final against the New York Red Bulls.

Sauro matched up well from a physical standpoint against the Impact center forward, with both officially listed as being 6-foot-2, and also played a smart game to stay on the field.

"I think Gastón did a fantastic job. Even after getting the early yellow, to keep his cool," Parkhurst said.

Parkhurst thought Drogba was taller than listed and that he had been getting the benefit of the official's whistle more often than not.

"It's just frustrating when a guy that's 6-foot-4 gets every touch call," Parkhurst said. "It's hard enough to play against him, he's a fantastic player. And he's getting every call like that and going down. It's almost impossible to defend."

Trapp agreed about the limitation of an offensive unit that's difficult to defend.

"I thought Michael and Gastón did an excellent job, just, containing him (Drogba) and then our midfielders trying to get numbers around him and win those second balls because that's kind of what they do: balls into Drogba, layoff, and that kind of stuff. So we planned well," Trapp said. "It was a comprehensive performance defensively for us."

Columbus allowed one goal but it was one that should not have counted due to a failure to correctly make an offside call, according to comments by the referees after the game. Drogba tallied but four tame shots in his team's final match of the season.

Objective 3, check.

Nothing revolutionary, but excellent execution thus far for a Crew SC team that's coming into great form with the Eastern Conference Finals ahead.

Kickoff against New York is slated for 5 p.m. at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday, Nov. 22.