By: Marco D'Onofrio
The Columbus Crew managed to do what nobody thought was possible coming into the Eastern Conference final. Not only did they prevent Major League Soccer's best offense from finding the back of the net at Mapfre Stadium, they nearly managed to do it at Red Bull Arena as well. The New York Red Bulls were the best team during the 2015 regular season, but after Sunday's performance, the Crew proved that they deserve to be in the MLS Cup final.
Gregg Berhalter's side came into Red Bull Arena aware that they wouldn't need to win the match to reach the league's championship game next Sunday, but they also knew they weren't playing the average MLS side either.
No team in the entire league won more games than the 2015 Supporters Shield winners, and no team scored more goals. But on Sunday in New Jersey, the franchise's playoff woes continued, losing in the Eastern Conference final for the second consecutive season.
"They did a good job of clogging the middle and not allowing us to get our rhythm of play going," said the recently named 2015 MLS Coach of the Year, Jesse Marsch. "We showed a little bit of impatience early, but as the first half went on, I thought we grew into the game. Credit to Columbus: they did make it hard on us and it wasn’t easy to find chances.”
Marsch will have a plethora of questions to answer in the offseason, including how to finally get his club to reach their potential in the playoffs. However, Red Bulls' fans will be much more optimistic about the club moving forward at the start of 2016, than they were in January, 2015, after Mike Petke was sacked.
The Crew have now taken out the Red Bulls in the MLS postseason for the third time, eliminating them from the 1998 Eastern Conference semi-finals, and beating them 3-1 in the 2008 MLS Cup final. Despite winning two Supporters Shield championships since then, New York have failed to return back to the league's most important game.
Much like the Red Bulls though, the Crew have only appeared in the MLS Cup final once. The MLS charter franchise are looking to win just their second ever MLS Cup, and will get the opportunity to do so on home soil, when they host the Portland Timbers next Sunday at Mapfre Stadium.
“We’re just going to enjoy tonight," said midfielder Will Trapp following his club's victory on Sunday night. "But it’s going to be very, very exciting to have the chance to win MLS Cup in front of our fans at home. You can’t say anything better than that, really. We just have to take care of business."
Columbus have proven to be a much better defensive team in the playoffs than they were during the regular season, having conceded just four goals in the postseason thus far. Toronto FC was the only playoff team to allow more goals than the Crew during the 2015 campaign, but before Anatole Abang's 90th minute goal, Columbus goalkeeper, Steve Clark, didn't need to pick the ball out of his own net in over 230 consecutive minutes.
While Berhalter's men looked shaky after Abang's breakthrough, the team were the better side over the two legs in the Eastern Conference final and have every reason to believe that they can lift the league's most prestigious trophy.