The Black & Gold were on a 12-match unbeaten run and had just two weeks earlier visited New York City and left with a 2-2 result. A repeat performance would be more than good enough to see the team through.
It appeared simple, but it wasn’t.
“None of us had been in a position where we had that big of a lead,” defender Hector Jimenez said. “So you want to be confident, but at the same time you’re on that 12-game unbeaten streak. You want to continue that, but at the same time you’re like ‘All we’ve got to do is just tie. Or we can lose 1-0, 2-0.’”
City scored from the penalty spot 16 minutes in and all the momentum was on the home team’s side. NYCFC piled on the pressure and the Crew SC game plan of treating this like any other game was out of the window.
Instead, the team had to defend its lead from the opening game, which was almost too big in a way according to head coach Gregg Berhalter.
“I think we were a little bit hesitant,” he said. “It was a difficult scoreline to defend to be honest. Because do you really go for it? It was odd and we wanted to send the message that we were going to high press them and we were going to try and create chances to show we were aggressive.”
Although New York City scored again in the 53rd minute to make things nerve wracking for the visitors, Columbus held on to the narrow 4-3 aggregate advantage and will face Toronto FC in the Eastern Conference Finals.
What helped lock things down was the introduction of rookie center back Lalas Abubakar. His entrance into the game for forward Ola Kamara gave the Black & Gold another big body along the backline over the final 15 minutes to help clear away crosses and defend with three true defenders, denying the Citizens’ back post delivery.
Crew SC advanced, but the team did not play well for 75 minutes, nor did it maintain the 12-match unbeaten run or a streak of 14 consecutive games with a goal scored.
“It was a subdued happiness I guess because we’ve done well for 12 games and then you sit here and you’re like ‘OK, we’re moving on, but we lost 2-0. We didn’t feel like we executed and played particularly well,’” captain Wil Trapp said. “So yeah, it was kind of an interesting, subdued reaction in the end. The plane ride home, you wouldn’t have thought that we were moving on in the playoffs.”
But moving on Columbus is and attention shifts to TFC, who had the best regular season point total in Major League Soccer’s 22-year history in 2017.
With more than two weeks off between rounds due to the international break, there was plenty of time for Crew SC players to feel bad about how they performed against NYCFC, but Trapp has not seen that from his teammates.
“I think honestly the way that game ended helps because we know it wasn’t good enough,” he said. “We weren’t happy with the performance and the result. It’s a good way to kind of motivate the guys to keep competitive nature going and knowing the next round of games are going to be just as difficult, if not more.
“There’s plenty of things to look at from that game and realize our mentality could have been better, the execution could have been better. And that’s something that should motivate us, should fuel us for the next round.”
For the Black & Gold, the last week was about getting healthy and staying sharp. Columbus had a number of players dealing with injuries and a virus went around the team locker room that limited many of the guys during the NYCFC series.
The streak that carried Crew SC into the MLS Cup playoffs, through a knockout round win at Atlanta United and the series victory over City is over. But that does not mean the season is.
“I think it’s ending a chapter and now we have to write the next chapter of the book,” Berhalter said. “And that’s the conference final against the best team this year certainly, and I’ve heard arguments that this is the best team in MLS history. So we have an opportunity against that team. It’s a good opportunity for us.”
With a healthy, rested and motivated team, the Black & Gold will get back to work on Tuesday, preparing for the Nov. 21 home leg.
The early playoff success is now well in the rearview mirror and the attention is zoomed in on what will be a daunting task taking down the MLS Cup favorites in TFC. But Crew SC have learned from the last round and will be ready to go when they take the field at MAPFRE Stadium next week.
“Toronto’s a difficult team. They might be the best team that we’ve had in this league. We’ll come up with a game plan,” Jimenez said.
“We’ve got to take advantage of that here at home. And if we do have the lead, it can’t be the same when we went to New York. We’ve got to play better, play our game and take it to them.”