Columbus Crew SC wanted to be in a good position after the first leg and they are after a bolt of a goal from the start and a late goal to give the home side a convincing 2-0 win against the New York Red Bulls on Sunday night in a packed MAPFRE Stadium.
The opener was as direct as anything Crew SC normally does. Columbus went to the usual set piece to open the game and it paid off. Wil Trapp took a layoff from the kickoff and booted it toward the Red Bull goal. Kei Kamara then nodded it to Finlay. The ball squirted loose and fell to Meram. Justin didn't miss. The goal was scored in nine seconds, an MLS Playoff record, and put Columbus up in spectacular fashion.
The rest of the half was just as direct and end to end. Crew SC and the Red Bulls both played full throttle, the home side in an attempt to keep the advantage and the visitors trying to get a goal back. The openness would lead to eight shots for both teams. Columbus put five on target while the Red Bulls were limited to one.
The Red Bulls applied their customary press and forced several first half turnovers in midfield. The Crew SC defense was up to the challenge and forced most of the saves from distance. Only Matt Miazga was able to get a shot on target in the first half. The high powered Red Bull midfield struggled completing the vital final pass. Sasha Kljestan, Mike Grella, and Dax McCarty started breaks that fell short as the defense was able to push the Red Bulls into wide areas and force early shots.
Crew SC continued to attack and it was a team effort. Kamara got plenty of service, but only one header was dangerous late in the half and it was easily saved by Luis Robles. Federico Higuain struggled with his touch in the weather, but still moved the ball effectively and had a booming shot just after a half hour, but right at Robles again for the easy save.
The best chance would fall to the goalscorer. Meram would nearly get a second goal just before the half. Taking a pass and crossing over on Sal Zizzo to free himself up for a bending shot. Robles proved equal to Meram's meathook and parried it just past the far post. Crew SC was inches away from a commanding lead.
The game started tipping towards New York as the second half unfolded. Those triangles started to appear and the visitors grabbed more and more of the ball and Columbus drew into a shell and looked to strike on the counter. Despite the strong possession, New York still wasn't able to crack the stout defense. Grella and Kljestan would have close range shots, but couldn't test Clark and blazed them off target.
For all the Red Bull pressure, Meram, again, would nearly double the advantage with a bounding strike from distance that curled just wide of the post in the 64th minute. It was the third well struck shot from Meram on the evening to remember for the left winger.
The chance would be a signal of what was to come. Crew SC deployed a high press that forced the Red Bull backline and midfield into repeated misfiring passes forward. Any rhythm the New York offense had was suddenly gone as they resorted to playing long balls forward.
With the game slipping, a Bradley Wright-Phillips moment of individual brilliance nearly gave the Red Bulls the equalizer in the 76th minute. Taking down a high ball and juggled in-between two Crew SC defenders in front of Clark's goal. He was able to volley a shot, but it went over.
Sensing there was an opening, Crew SC pressed forward again, playing quickly after recovering from Red Bull defensive mistakes. There was little offense that came out of these pushes forward, but it gave the defense a breather and a chance to lock down the lead with a late goal.
That chance would come. Clinging to the single goal lead in the 85th moment, Crew SC winger Cedrick Mabwati took the ball at the corner of the penalty area, split Gonzalo Veron and Dax McCarty to skate towards the six-yard box. Eluding a late Felipe challenge, he struck a blistering right footed shot forcing another Robles parry. The rebound dribbled to the goalmouth and Kamara simply tapped it in for the second goal.
Columbus would see out the final minutes and the game. Crew SC is in a good position with the 2-0 first leg lead. New York is now in a dangerous position, needing at least two goals to send the tie to overtime. A Crew SC goal in Red Bull Arena would make those odds longer and effectively kill off the tie.
Each game just gets bigger. Leg two is Sunday, November 29th, with time and network to be decided. A spot in the MLS Cup finals will be on the line.