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What led to such a disappointing end to Crew SC’s 2018 season?

After such a great performance in Leg 1, how did the Black & Gold lay such a massive egg in the second leg?

MLS: Eastern Conference Semifinal-Columbus Crew SC at New York Red Bulls Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Columbus Crew SC were feeling good. The Black & Gold earned a 1-0 win over the New York Red Bulls, the best regular season team in Major League Soccer history, at home in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals. New York would need a multi-goal victory at Red Bull Arena. A road goal for the Black & Gold would all but kill off the series.

It was not to be. Alex Muyl scored a goal from a set piece just 17 minutes into the game to tie the series at one a piece. While Columbus was able to weather the rest of the Red Bulls’ storm and even began to control the game late in the first and half and the start of the second, the visitors never looked dangerous with only four shots on goal.

By the final whistle, it was 3-0 RBNY and Crew SC’s 2018 season had come to a prompt and decisive end.

“Shitty,” winger Justin Meram said of the mood at the team’s mood at their training center the day after the loss. “It’s not great. But that’s sports. You can’t always — we can be proud of the effort and what we put in but obviously disappointed with the outcome.”

What went so wrong for the Black & Gold on Sunday that saw such a letdown in the second leg?

In the first game against the Red Bulls at home, head coach Gregg Berhalter took a calculated risk by leaving playmaker Federico Higuain on the bench for the first half to rest after playing 120 minutes in the Knockout Round against D.C. United. After scoring two goals to get Columbus to the East semifinals, Higuain came on in the second half and changed the game, setting up Crew SC’s goal with a big of magic

New York certainly took notice and knew shutting Higuain down would be the key to success in the second leg.

“They didn’t let us build up like we wanted to, making us play long balls,” Meram said of the Red Bulls. “It’s not what we want to do and their pressure was a lot better. They man marked Pipa everywhere the whole game.”

After having 35 touches in just 45 minutes of play in Leg 1, Higuain had just nine more in the loss despite double the minutes. His importance was evident in the Black & Gold’s first two playoff games, but Higuain was missing in action thanks to the game plan of the Red Bulls.

With the home crowd behind them, New York was also able to amp up its pressure much more than at MAPFRE Stadium. Although it fell off near the end of the first half, the Red Bulls were able to find the energy to keep pressing in the second half and that led to the second and third goals that ended the game.

But it wasn’t just what the Red Bulls did. Crew SC could never find that extra gear required in the playoffs — something they had against D.C. and in the first leg — to match RBNY’s energy in Leg 2.

“We didn’t really have the calm, we didn’t have the poise to put the ball on the ground and say, ‘Okay, this is happening. This is what we’ll do,’ and that’s what I miss,” Berhalter said. “Of course there’s always going to be the competitive element when you play Red Bull. You’re going to have to compete, you’re going to have to get into duels. But then there’s moments where we could have been more calm and we just weren’t. It was an off day by us and we didn’t deserve to win the game.”

That lack of calm and composure is surprising for a Crew SC side that has typically been able to find what it needs in big playoff moments. Even in last season’s Eastern Conference Final lost to eventual MLS Cup champions Toronto FC, the Black & Gold created enough chances to win on the road, coming within inches of grabbing the goal the team needed.

But this year, there were too few chances and not enough offensive control to even argue that Columbus deserved to advance over the Red Bulls in the second leg. Because of that, disappointed players cleaned out their lockers on Monday to head out for another offseason.

“We expected a lot out of this year,” defender Josh Williams said on Monday. “We truly thought, if we could get past New York, we know that we’ve gone into Atlanta and got the job done there before. We just expected to still be playing. Today would have been an off day and we’d be back here Tuesday or Wednesday. It’s just a weird feeling.”

The 2018 season is going to be remembered for its difficulties. While the team performed well on the field, fourth place seemed to be its ceiling after the first few weeks of the year. Off the field, fans battled the possibility of relocation. The fact that it appears that they won and Crew SC will remain in Columbus will overshadow the disappointing conclusion for them.

But for players and coaches, this was not the way the season was supposed to end. While only one team concludes the year happy, the Black & Gold expected a much better performance in the final game instead of the sad limp to the finish.

“I look at this last part as a failure to be honest,” Berhalter said. “Because I really believed in this group, I really believed in what we could do together, I think we were in a good position to achieve more and we didn’t. From that standpoint, I don’t think we’re happy. We’re not satisfied. We wanted more.”