A slew of yellow cards, a botched penalty kick attempt, frightening collisions and controversial goals were all among the sights taken in by a raucous MAPFRE Stadium crowd Sunday.
Columbus Crew SC, playing host in the second leg of its two-game Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Montreal Impact, punched its ticket to the next round with a back-and-forth 3-1 win in this contest and a 4-3 aggregate victory in the series.
The home club wasted no time making a statement, as star forward Kei Kamara headed a precisely placed open play cross from left back Waylon Francis to score in the fourth minute of play. 19,026 were on hand to witness the contest and while sparse spots of Impact blue were visible in the stands, the Crew SC faithful erupted deafeningly as Kamara converted.
The 2-1 loss Columbus had suffered last Sunday in Montreal meant that securing a one-goal lead while trying to sustain a shutout placed the Black & Gold in the driver's seat to advance, based on the stipulations of the away-goals rule. A tie in nominal aggregate scoring would potentially be broken by Montreal scoring none on the road to Columbus' one.
So the fervor of the home crowd upon the Sierra Leonean striker's tally was understandable.
The match featured strong defensive performances early on by center backs Michael Parkhurst and Gaston Sauro — the latter of whom drew a booking in the 30th minute for a physical slide tackle and will miss the first leg against the New York Red Bulls.
World Cup and English Premier League veteran Didier Drogba was a force in the box all evening, drawing challenges as he looked to use his size to get contact with foot and head on ball but he was unable to find the back of the net. Steve Clark had a handful of miraculous saves that kept the Black & Gold's chances of advancement alive.
One of his best saves on the evening was followed anticlimactically by a 40th minute goal scored by Montreal's Dilly Duka. Broadcast personalities contended his positioning could have been interpreted as offside, but the officiating crew didn't rule anything to be wrong with the sequence.
Crew SC played down in the series for the majority of the second half, but an unassisted goal by right wing Ethan Finlay after a deflected save by Impact keeper Evan Bush restored hope for the Ohio squad to hang around.
The Finlay goal invoked the necessity of extra time if Columbus could deny Montreal through the end of regulation.
While Columbus could have elected to schematically play to not lose, they instead asserted themselves in the possession battle during the final 30 minutes of overtime, passing efficiently and suddenly looking dangerous on the counterattack where normally they sit back and reset.
Fittingly, both Kamara and Finlay were involved on the dagger that came in minute 111.
A patient handle from Finlay ended with a steep pass left to a waiting Cedrick Mabwati along the flank. He used strong footwork to sneak around his defender's left and arc an assist to Kamara to all but ice Columbus' berth in the conference finals.
So with a final scoreline of 3-1 Sunday evening, Crew SC advances on aggregate, 4-3, to face the top-seeded New York Red Bulls in pursuit of its second MLS Cup and first since 2008. The MLS Cup Playoffs take a break next weekend, meaning the Black & Gold will host the Red Bulls in two weeks.