The playoff series between Columbus and New York started with a bang, so there was a certain symmetry that it finished the same way. Justin Meram’s goal after only nine seconds in the first leg was mirrored by a goal from Anatole Abang three minutes into stoppage time. A potentially tying goal bounced off the inside of the post moments later, only for Columbus forward Kei Kamara to play it safely out of bounds while standing inside his own goal.
In the end, all the drama boiled down to this: there will be one more Columbus Crew SC home game this season. MLS Cup is returning to Ohio’s capital city for the first time in 14 years, and Columbus is playing in the championship for the first time since 2008.
After securing a 2-0 victory in the first leg of the series with New York, Columbus knew what they had to do in the second. Anything other than a two-goal defeat would see them advance. Because of the away goals tiebreaker, if Columbus could score at all then New York would be forced to win by three.
Yet that was easier said than done on Sunday evening. Columbus was forced to adapt to New York’s ferocious pressure, and conceded the majority of the possession to their hosts. Red Bulls midfielder Dax McCarty was everywhere, completing almost 100 passes over the course of the evening in a performance that resembled those of Wil Trapp.
But it didn’t matter. Columbus still reached halftime with an advantage in shots taken, the first coming after only two minutes from Ethan Finlay. Kei Kamara was twice denied by the goalkeeping of Luis Robles, including one mind-bending sequence in the 38th minute that saw Kamara flick the ball to himself in the air and snatch a shot with his back to goal.
New York, for all their pressure and possession, rarely threatened with a dangerous chance in the first half. Their only shot on goal came in stoppage time, a headed effort from Bradley Wright-Phillips that goalkeeper Steve Clark saved easily.
The most memorable sequence of the first half may turn out to be a confrontation between Tony Tchani and Mike Grella in the 28th minute. As the game became increasingly chippy, tempers finally boiled over after a foul by Felipe Martins on Federico Higuain. In the aftermath of Martins’ caution, Tchani and Grella came together and had to be separated. No action was taken by referee Baldomero Toldeo, but replays seemed to show that Tchani got away with a headbutt.
The second half produced even more New York pressure, with Columbus enjoying fewer scoring chances of their own. New York coach Jesse Marsch turned to his bench relatively early, sending on Gonzalo Veron in the 62nd minute while Anatole Abang joined the action ten minutes later. Columbus resisted making any changes until the 77th minute, when Harrison Afful was forced from the game due to injury and was replaced by Chris Klute. Further changes brought Mohammed Saeid and Tyson Wahl onto the field.
New York kept surging, while Columbus kept defending. At times Columbus showed flashes of their usual passing aplomb, but only in spurts. Luis Robles was rarely troubled by what possession the Crew SC midfield could muster.
The ninety minutes of regulation time came and went, but the Columbus grasp on the game expired as the game entered stoppage time. Anatole Abang finally broke the deadlock with a headed shot that caught Steve Clark in an ill-considered challenge off his line, and the New York players – and supporters – had that most dangerous of resources: hope.
What had been a nervy display nearly turned to panic as the game approached the last of the announced four minutes of stoppage time. Bradley Wright-Phillips, who replays later showed came from an offside position, sent a last-gasp header toward the goal only to see it carom off the inside of the right goalpost. Kei Kamara, tracking back into his own goal, was able to control the rebound and play it safely out of bounds for one last corner kick – which failed to produce a shot on goal.
The result – labeled “the greatest defeat in Columbus history” by Columbus Dispatch writers Michael Arace and Shawn Mitchell – puts Columbus Crew SC in MLS Cup for the second time in club history. Their opponent will be the Portland Timbers, who survived a late challenge of their own en route to dispatching FC Dallas.
MLS Cup is scheduled for Sunday evening at MAPFRE Stadium. The game is already sold out.
Timeline of events
7′ Corner kick, New York (left side – short corner cleared)
9′ Corner kick, Columbus (right side – header saved by Robles)
18′ Corner kick, Columbus (left side – not shot taken)
19′ Corner kick, New York (left side – headed shot wide)
21′ Corner kick, New York (right side – cleared)
28′ Caution, Felipe Martins (dangerous tackle on Federico Higuain)
47′ Corner kick, New York (right side – punched by Clark, foul called)
53′ Corner kick, Columbus (right side – no shot taken)
61′ Corner kick, Columbus (right side – headed clear)
62′ Gonzalo Veron replaces Mike Grella
64′ Corner kick, New York (left side – headed clear)
68′ Caution, Gaston Sauro (dangerous tackle on Sacha Kljestan)
72′ Anatole Abang replaces Kemar Lawrence
74′ Corner kick, New York (right side – shot blocked)
75′ Corner kick, New York (right side – short, no shot taken)
77′ Chris Klute replaces Harrison Afful
80′ Corner kick, Columbus (right side – headed clear)
82′ Shaun Wright-Phillips replaces Felipe Martins
85′ Caution, Sal Zizzo (professional foul on Justin Meram)
86′ Mohammed Saeid replaces Justin Meram
93+ 0-1 Anatole Abang
94+ Tyson Wahl replaces Ethan Finlay
Columbus Crew SC
Steve Clark, Harrison Afful (Chris Klute 77′), Gaston Sauro, Michael Parkhurst, Waylon Francis, Wil Trapp, Tony Tchani, Ethan Finlay (Tyson Wahl 94+), Federico Higuain, Justin Meram (Mohammed Saeid 86′), Kei Kamara
Brad Stuver, Hector Jimenez, Cedrick Mabwati, Jack MacInerney
New York Red Bulls
Luis Robles, Sal Zizzo, Ronald Zubar, Matt Miazga, Kemar Lawrence (Anatole Abang 72′), Dax McCarty, Felipe Martins (Shawn Wright-Phillips 82′), Loyd Sam, Sacha Kljestan, Mike Grella (Gonzalo Veron 62′), Bradley Wright-Phillips
Kyle Reynish, Connor Lade, Karl Ouimette, Sean Davis