Columbus Crew SC's 2014 season came to a screeching halt nearly three weeks before Thanksgiving. But this year the team has paved itself a path toward trying to win the MLS Cup in December.
After defeating the New York Red Bulls in a formidable 2-0 showing at MAPFRE Stadium during the first leg of the Eastern Conference finals, the Black & Gold head east to try finishing the job they started last week.
Columbus' ability to keep a clean sheet on Nov. 22 makes the aggregate comeback bid for New York far more difficult, as they would need a 3-0 score line at home to win the series outright and advance.
But neither team is considering the series to be anywhere close to done yet.
"I feel strongly that, again, going back to Red Bull Arena that there's a lot to play for yet. We've been very good there all year," New York head coach Jesse Marsch said following the loss last week. "We're going to rely on our home fans, a full stadium and a good performance at home to get us through."
It's a stadium with a bigger crowd capacity than MAPFRE, and Marsch has guided his club to a 12-3-2 record within its confines, with one of those victories being a 2-1 decision over Columbus in early October.
"There's a lot of work to do and the message to the group is, you know, this isn't over by a long shot. And it's going to take even a better effort (in Leg 2) to reach the final," Columbus head coach Gregg Berhalter said after Leg 1. "This series is not over. Trust me, they're going to come out hot in Harrison (N.J.) and it's going to be a tough game."
And just as many are concluding a long holiday weekend of relaxation, these teams have been working during a week-long halftime period of a 180-minute game, something Crew SC goalkeeper Steve Clark was already thinking about after last week's game.
"This (2-0 win) is a good result but it's only halftime. At halftime of a game, you don't focus on the first half. You kind of get ready for the next one," Clark said. "I don't feel like our goal's going to be any different than going into New York if it was a different score line."
Captain Michael Parkhurst echoed the sentiment.
"We go into New Jersey knowing the result that we need. You know, it's 2-0 at halftime. 2-0's a dangerous lead, we all know that," Parkhurst said. "The first goal's going to be very important. We know that if we can get an away goal, we're going to be in a very, very good position."
And despite New York getting to enjoy second leg homefield advantage, Columbus left winger Justin Meram—early hero in scoring nine seconds into last Sunday's match—knows what Crew SC has to do defensively Sunday night to improve upon last week's performance.
"I think we need to start off on the right foot. Definitely don't want to let them score quick, like we did to them, and give them momentum early," Meram said. "I think if we knock the ball around and make them chase, then they're going to have to be a little desperate and I think that's when you can exploit them.
Meram went on to discuss how the team experienced a lull after his early goal provided an unexpected surge of emotion: "I feel like after we scored we gave them maybe, what, five corners in a row? So I think we kind of fell off a little bit right after the goal. It was just such a high.
"You know, obviously, it was a positive and I think we needed to regroup after that because everyone was going a little crazy."
Containment of Bradley Wright-Phillips remains a priority, as does limiting set pieces in general and not just corner kicks like Meram said. Additionally, riding the hot foot of designated player Federico Higuain is something the team will also hope to duplicate in New Jersey.
"When he's playing well, he's usually (one of) the best—if not the best—player on the field. So, you know, it's huge for us and he can really drive the attack," said right winger Ethan Finlay of Higuain's value generally and also against the Red Bulls. "I think his ability to just continue to work all night, offensively and defensively, is kind of what helps us out so much and relieves the stress of the guys behind him in Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani to be able to deal with the Kljestans and deal with the Felipes."
Berhalter lauded Higuain also, saying "as much as people respect the type of player he is, I still think he's underrated. I really do. Because he's fantastic: the work rate, the effort, the control. He's outstanding and you see how much he wants it."
Clark said "the ball was stuck to him like glue" during the Argentine's outing versus New York and Parkhurst followed up by praising him as "one of the best Number 10s in the league."
Parkhurst said "it's a calming presence when the game is so hectic and so fast, that you can play him, (and he) slows it down a little bit but is also able to withstand some pressure when doing so.
"He's a big, big, big key for us even if he's not scoring goals and we're going to need him again next week."
If Pipa is as agile and efficient with his passing, his tendency to generate chances off-ball and his physical contesting of possession in the midfield, expect New York to have trouble all over again Sunday night.
The game flow will likely be far different from Leg 1, as Marsch is well aware his team blew it against a designed kickoff play last week and will have his Red Bulls ready to step up and press from the outset. This will make for a more even possession battle, since Columbus will be just as hungry for first blood without the benefit of a 1st minute strike.
Kickoff is slated for 7:30 p.m. at Red Bull Arena and the game can be witnessed nationwide on Fox Sports 1.