The Columbus Crew eased past an overmatched New York Red Bulls 3-2 in the First Round of the MLS Cup Playoffs. Despite falling behind, the Black & Gold rode goals from Pedro Santos, Darlington Nagbe, and Gyasi Zardes and fended off a furious comeback effort to move on.
The Crew nearly opened the scoring in the first minute as they took their first possession down the left side through Milton Valenzuela and Lucas Zelarayan to feed Zardes inside the six yard box. The tight angled shot was saved by Ryan Meara, but it was a clear statement from Columbus to take the game to the Red Bulls.
Columbus had the next great chance in the 17th minute. The team following ed up with a Zelarayan corner that found Jonathan’s head and forced Meara to parry it over. The Red Bulls weren’t tested by the followup corner.
It was the visitors that opened the scoring first though. Dru Yearwood fired in a hopeful cross as the Red Bulls were in possession in the Crew end and Harrison Afful mis-hit his clearance and it fell to Caden Clark. The home grown signing buried the shot from 15 yards to make it 1-0 in the 23rd minute.
The Black & Gold responded immediately and drove possession into the final third. During a 26th minute transition, Zelarayan played a pass across to the left side that connected with Milton Valenzuela. The Argentine left back played a pass into Santos. The winger cut centrally and Yearwood clipped him and brought him down for the easy penalty call. Santos then placed his attempt to the left and past the outstretched goalkeeper to tie the game.
After the furious opening 25 minutes, the game settled down with the chances slowing down. Daniel Royer came closest for the visitors as he stabbed a shot at the right post from a tight angle, but Eloy Room was up to the challenge.
The Crew had a couple shots on target, but Santos’ slow roller in the 37th minute was easily saved and Zelarayan’s strike from distance in stoppage time was partially clipped and Meara collected again.
The Black & Gold attacked from the opening whistle of the the second half to take their first lead of the game. Zelarayan dribbled down the center of the field and launched a blast from 25 yards out that pinged off the left post. Santos collected the ricochet, passed to Valenzuela, who centered to Zardes. His attempt to control was pushed wide and Nagbe collected the loose ball and didn’t miss from 12 yards with his left foot to make it 2-1.
The goal unsettled the visitors as they struggled under the Crew pressure and were unable to connect simple passes. Though Columbus was unable to turn the Red Bulls wobbles into a goal, it did force the Red Bulls into two tactical substitutions by the 60th minute in an effort to stabilize the game.
The changes weren’t enough as the Crew once again broke through, this time on a transition that pulled the New York defense out of shape. Artur connected a pass to Santos who fed Zelarayan and then another pass to Derrick Etienne Jr. His floated cross found Zardes’ head. The popped up header lofted over Meara and into the side netting to make it 3-1 in the 68th minute.
Columbus tried to close out the game with the two goal lead and did well to limit the visitors to two off target shots as the game wound toward the 90th minute. The Crew had a couple half chances, including a tight angle Santos shot in the 82nd minute that would have put the game truly out of reach.
The lack of an extra insurance goal made for a nervous stoppage time as the Red Bulls closed the deficit to one in the 90th minute. Brian White seized on a loose ball and finished from seven yards out to make it 3-2.
After the goal, the visitors would uncork three more shots, only Tom Barlow’s effort was on target, but Room gathered easily. It was a scramble to close out the five minutes of stoppage after confidently navigating the second half.
Crew games against the Red Bulls have usually challenged the Black & Gold as they struggled with the relentless New York press. The Red Bulls don’t press as much as they used to, but the Crew pressure was relentless and caused the visitors significant problems in possession and gave Columbus several short field chances.
The Crew struggled down the final stretch of the MLS season as injuries took their toll on the team. Caleb Porter had his pick of the starting lineup and they delivered results. The first | only Columbus substitution came in the 81st minute with the Crew leading 3-1.
With a full roster and no more multi game weeks, the Crew can play their starters without worrying about injuries or rotation. Porter and Crew supporters have to be feeling pretty good at how the schedule and timing sets up for the team.
The Crew move on. They will now wait to see who they face in the Conference Semifinal Round beginning on Sunday, November 29th through Wednesday, December 2nd. They face the winner of the Toronto FC Nashville game. They would travel to face Toronto FC and would host Nashville.