Columbus bends in the Bronx, falling to NYCFC, but advances on aggregate
Three thoughts from New York City FC's 2-0 defeat of Columbus Crew SC in the second leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals, which sees the Crew move on to the conference final thanks to a 4-3 aggregate win.
1. Columbus shaky but does just enough
It certainly was not pretty, but Columbus Crew SC got what is a good enough result in Sunday's 2-0 loss to New York City FC to book their ticket to the Eastern Conference final.
NYCFC were looking to make history by becoming the first MLS team to rally from a three-goal first-leg deficit, and for a good chunk of time in the second half, MLS historians had their pens primed to add a chapter. But it was a mountain too high for the New Yorkers to climb. And while it will feel like backing in, the Crew won't care; they are through to the MLS postseason final four.
Predictably, NYCFC came out the more aggressive of the two clubs, and the inclusion of Ronald Matarrita at left-back was a significant upgrade from Ethan White in the first leg. Matarrita's overlapping runs gave Columbus headaches, while right-back Andraz Struna, also getting the nod after playing as a substitute in Columbus, provided some good width and was arguably NYCFC's most creative man on the night.
It was an uneven 90 minutes for Columbus. Ola Kamara was essentially anonymous, while more than once Federico Higuain was noticeably frustrated with teammates for their lack of precision. The dangerous transitions that they enjoyed in the first leg were nowhere to be seen.
In the back, the Crew's lapses that went unpunished in the first leg were not forgiven on Sunday night. Josh Williams was slow and clumsy when he took down Rodney Wallace, setting the table for David Villa's penalty conversion in the 16th minute, before Jonathan Mensah redirected Struna's cross into his own net.
NYCFC had Columbus on the ropes, and when Patrick Vieira's men start flying, they are tough to beat. Only the wayward finishing of Maxi Moralez and Jack Harrison and a Wallace shot off the post kept NYCFC from the miracle.
Gregg Berhalter countered wisely, bringing on the speedy Kekuta Manneh before making two defensive changes in Lalas Abubakar and Adam Jahn to take the sting out of the NYCFC attack. It's not how he imagined it, but in the end, Berhalter pulled the right strings to allow Columbus to play another day.
2. Another early exit for NYCFC
It's disappointment all over again for NYCFC following another exit after being the second seed in the East. Last year, it was a 5-0 drubbing in Yankee Stadium at the hands of Toronto FC that doomed Vieira's men after a 2-0 first-leg defeat in Canada. This time around, the fault lies with their first-leg performance in Columbus.
Down 1-0 and a man in the second half, a more pragmatic approach was needed, but that never came to pass. Even with a 3-1 deficit there was a path to a comeback, but Harrison Afful's second-half stoppage-time goal settled this tie, and surely Sunday's 2-0 win will be chewed on all winter long in Gotham, knowing that it would have been sufficient had Afful not scored.
Assuming Vieira sticks around and turns away any suitors in Europe who might come calling, there are still several areas of need that should be addressed. Alexander Callens was a nice addition over the winter, but the defense could use improvement, plus another body in attack.
The designated player money that was taken up by Andrea Pirlo will now allow NYCFC some wiggle room, and if Vieira can have the kind of offseason that he had last winter when he made the savvy additions of midfielders Moralez, Alexander Ring and Yangel Herrera, then NYCFC can once again think big in 2018.
3. Columbus can feel confident against TFC
Sunday's result aside, Columbus will feel good about its chances in the Eastern Conference final against Toronto FC.
Berhalter has the personnel in the form of Kamara, Higuain and Justin Meram to breach the Toronto defense, and with both Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco -- two players who account for nearly half of TFC's goals -- out for the first leg, there's no reason why the Crew can't register another victory in front of the home fans.
The second leg will be a far trickier test, of course, especially with the error-prone defense against TFC's star-studded attack, but Columbus has the goods to ride a first-leg victory to another series win.
A nice fairy tale is taking shape in Ohio's capital, and there's no reason why it can't end with lifting the cup in front of the Crew's home fans.
Arch Bell is based in Austin, Texas and covers CONCACAF for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ArchBell .