Sunday's win over the New York Red Bulls may not have won style points to impress connoisseurs, but it exceeded the expectation of every single Columbus Crew SC fan in a packed and rocking MAPFRE Stadium and Gregg Berhalter knows it.
"I think, for the spectators, it was a very entertaining game but aesthetically, it wasn't the most beautiful from my standpoint," said the Crew SC head coach in his press conference following 2-0 win in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Berhalter's workmanlike managerial approach is such that — just moments after convincingly toppling a New York team that had not been shut out since May 24 — he was looking for constant improvement.
"Our job is to remain calm and keep making progress and see where you are at the end of the year," Berhalter said of the pursuit of the franchise's second MLS Cup. "I think that's the mindset of this group."
The fans didn't remain calm, however, when the Black & Gold scored their first goal on the evening just an MLS Playoff record-setting nine seconds into play. Corner to corner, top to bottom, even the fans that had barely found their seat erupted when left winger Justin Meram found the back of the net.
The sequence was no accident, and even the visitors knew it.
"The first goal is a designed play off a kickoff that goes to [forward Kei] Kamara and they planned for [right winger Ethan] Finlay to run through like we know they do and we still let them beat us. So that part's very disappointing," Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch said. "We don't do well … on a play that we've talked about all week."
Rather than slogging through a dicey first leg match in bitter cold, both teams looked to push the tempo. It was the type of game that reflected the reputation of both Crew SC and the Red Bulls: two top clubs with established philosophies, both a step away from the MLS Cup Final, and plenty of back-and-forth counterattack chances coming after changes of possession. And while the Meram goal was effective at setting the tone early, captain Michael Parkhurst knew his defense had a long night of work ahead.
"It can be very difficult when you score that early, to just not sit back and try and defend for the next 89 minutes. But that's not what we do best, it's not in our DNA. We're not built that way," the defender said. "We gave up a little more possession that we probably usually do, maybe, due to the early goal. But, that being said, I thought we were able to play through them and create some chances and, you know, I thought the team responded really well."
Marsch also understood the tough task Columbus faced for much of the game.
"Sometimes when you score early like Columbus does, the game, you know, you wind up taking a little bit more of a defensive posture," Marsch said when he addressed why New York enjoyed a possession advantage in a losing effort. "We were able to put the game on our terms … but, you know, just guys didn't do well enough. You know, altogether, on the night, we weren't alert enough. We didn't cover enough ground, we didn't make it hard on them, we didn't win enough loose balls.
"We didn't do enough. We let ourselves down."
Both teams struggled to take advantage of set piece opportunities early on. Crew SC took seven corner kicks in the first half and New York got nine, but neither amounted to any scoring due to formidable defense in the 18-yard box and good clearances.
Red Bulls forward Bradley Wright-Phillips has often been the key to the Supporters' Shield winners' offense getting in gear and converting, but the the Black & Gold backline limited one of the league's premier scoring threats to just two shots Sunday.
Veteran backup Tyson Wahl filled in superbly for the suspended Gastón Sauro, bogging down New York's attack by frenetically yet smoothly covering space to contest possession. Finlay had plenty of praise for a Crew SC defense that sometimes makes itself vulnerable by deploying its outside backs up front to flank alongside mobile wingers like himself.
"I think Tony [Tchani] and Wil [Trapp] did a great job of being around him," Finlay said of Columbus defensive midfielders' ability to swarm around New York midfielder Sacha Kljestan. "And second balls. Mike and Tyson did a fantastic job at winning a lot of balls with BWP being on the front and back of them. And, you know a striker like that kind of fits more to our strengths, versus a [Montreal Impact striker Didier] Drogba. He was a little more physical."
Kljestan and Wright-Phillips did orchestrate a couple of chances that were close to becoming the New York equalizer, despite how well Crew SC defended its zone.
In the 55th minute, Wright-Phillips managed to bring a ball down and use his body to screen and then hook an assist around a defender in tight space to Kljestan. It looked like a sure goal would happen — with goalkeeper Steve Clark tending closer to the far post — but the shot sailed wide as the ball hit the side netting.
"We wanted to limit them to good scoring opportunities. That was our focus and that [Kljestan attempt] was certainly a good scoring opportunity," Berhalter said with a slight laugh as he reflected on Crew SC's good fortune on the play. "They didn't have many in the game but that was one of them and, you know, the game of soccer is such that you need those breaks sometimes and Sacha didn't score on that, which was good for us."
The second goal Columbus scored came in the 85th minute when Kamara, who — instead of heading the ball in like he did twice against Montreal two weeks earlier — used his foot to score an unassisted goal to essentially confirm the winning result.
Cedrick Mabwati came in for Finlay just five minutes prior to the goal, and it was his shot that paved the way for the game-sealing tally.
Using the fresh legs and offensive spark he always brings as a threatening substitute, Mabwati took advantage of clearly gassed Kemar Lawrence and Ronald Zubar to outwork them inside the 18-yard box and fire an on-target shot on goal. Red Bulls keeper Luis Robles got his fifth and final save of the night by deflecting Mabwati's strike.
The only problem for New York was that Kamara was there to tap in the deflection from a yard out.
"A lot of credit goes to our assistant coach, Josh Wolff, who pointed out how fatigued Zubar and Lawrence were, and they were struggling," Berhalter said. "And Cedrick is the perfect weapon to put in at that time because, you know, obviously he's electric, he has pace."
"We're happy to see that he's capable, to come in and affect a game that way. That's something that's very difficult. Early in my career, I struggled at that," Finlay said of Mabwati relieving him at right wing. "It's a tough thing coming off the bench and catching the pace of play. He did a fantastic job … he made a nice play and Kei was there to finish it."
Holding New York scoreless while also tallying two was vital, given the away-goals rule format.
"It could be the decisive goal, obviously," Finlay said. "Not trying to fast forward too much, but it could be something that we look back on Sunday evening and say, 'That was a big moment.'"
Crew SC will travel to Harrison, N.J., to try maintaining the 2-0 aggregate lead they now have in the Eastern Conference Finals when they take on New York at Red Bull Arena on Sunday at 7:30 p.m. for Leg 2.