Columbus Crew SC puts on show for home crowd, lead 4-1 in Eastern Semifinals

Columbus Crew SC midfielder Federico Higuain celebrates with teammates after they score a goal against New York City FC in Mapfre Stadium Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017

Henry Palattella


On Oct. 17, Columbus Crew SC owner Anthony Precourt announced he would move the team to Austin, Texas, if it wasn’t able to secure a stadium in downtown Columbus in the next year. The news came as a gut punch to the Crew SC faithful, many of whom have been with the team since their inception in 1996. 

On Tuesday, those fans were finally able to get what they hope would be a reprieve from the uncertainty surrounding the team, as Crew SC took on New York City FC in the first leg of the MLS Eastern Conference Semifinals.

But in the 84th minute, Crew SC fans were dealing with another kind of uncertainty; only this time, it was on the field. It was at this time that NYCFC’s David Villa found the back of the net, sucking the life out of Mapfre Stadium. Even though Crew SC still held a 3-1 lead over NYCFC, the goal was the all-important away goal, something that gave NYCFC a breath of life going into the second leg of the semifinal.

That was until Harrison Afful took that breath away.

In the 94th minute, Afful took a feed from Justin Meram and cut through the NYCFC defense before depositing the ball in the bottom left corner of the net, a goal that served as a cathartic release for the Crew SC faithful. Streamers and colored smoke filled the stadium while most of the 14,416 fans in attendance broke into cheers and chants. Afful danced with his teammates. Villa and his fellow NYCFC teammates stood still on the field, flabbergasted at the hole they were now in. 

“I think it was less than ideal to give up that goal, but great response,” Crew SC coach Gregg Berhalter said. “Our work isn’t done by a long shot. We made that clear in the locker room. There’s 90 minutes to play until the series is over, and it’s going to be tough.”

For Crew SC, it was a tale of two halves. While they opened the scoring in the sixth minute when Ola Kamara knocked in the deflection from a Federico Higuain shot, they still had numerous opportunities to increase that lead.

“I came into the game knowing that it would be a crazy environment,” Kamara said. “We needed an early goal and I was able to provide that. Both teams had a lot of big, big chances in the first half.” 

Meram sent a sure goal eight feet over the crossbar in the 31st minute. Eight minutes later, Kamara skied a ball in the box, and then two minutes later missed a streaking Artur. But luckily for Crew SC, NYCFC couldn’t make the most of their opportunities either.

Numerous Crew SC defenders lost their footing on the turf, which led to NYCFC getting some golden opportunities to score. The most pronounced misses came in the 35th and 36th minutes when Villa missed two chances. He first sent a shot too far across the goal, and then followed that up by hitting the left post on a breakaway, a look he normally finishes with ease.  

The biggest point of controversy in the match came in the 48th minute when Meram was hit in the face by NYCFC’s Alexander Callens. After a video review, Callens was given a red card. This could prove to be a huge detriment for NYCFC, as Callens was the only non-goalie in MLS to play every minute of every match during the regular season, which leaves NYCFC coach Patrick Vieira in an awkward spot.

“I didn’t see it yet,” Vieira said of the call. “It’s difficult for me to comment because I couldn’t see it.”

Crew SC took advantage of NYCFC’s 10 men, as Artur scored his first career MLS goal after receiving a pass from Higuain in the NYCFC box and making a move before ripping a shot past goalkeeper Sean Johnson.

“(Artur) has been pushing for it,” Berhalter said of the goal. “Not only that, I think the way he’s adapted to the country and city has been phenomenal.”

Crew SC looked to put the game away in the 69th minute when Meram lined one in the back of the net from the edge of the 18-yard box that deflected off Johnson into the goal, setting off a wild celebration in Mapfre Stadium.

The thought of the relocation wasn’t forgotten throughout the whole match, however, as fans broke out into chants of “Save the Crew” as well as “C-R-E, Double-U, Fuck you Precourt, We are the Crew.”

“I just heard cheers; I didn’t hear any of that,” Berhalter said. “But as I said, we repurposed our mission now; it’s to play for our fans and give them as many home games as possible and let them enjoy something.”

For captain Wil Trapp, the atmosphere was what he was expecting. 

“I thought it was on par, for the most part,” Trapp said. “They were so engaged from minute one, and then obviously we gave them a show.”

Precourt — who lives in California — was in attendance at the game, cheering and clapping when Crew SC pushed their goals across the board.

Crew SC will now go into New York with a 4-1 aggregate lead, and one goal in New York would essentially end the game, which means New York is in a tough spot.

“Conceding four goals away from home is going to make it really difficult for us,” Vieira said. “It’s a difficult challenge that we are going to try to prepare ourselves for.”

For Berhalter, he said he’ll be working on the team’s focus going forward. 

“We need to do what we’ve been doing and more,” he said. “We need to continue to be focused and dedicated to recovery and go into New York with a purpose, and that purpose is to score a goal.” 

But despite all unanswered questions surrounding the Crew SC, that doesn’t mean the players aren’t able to stay loose. After answering questions, Trapp looked at his phone to check the score of the World Series game between the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers.

“Yes!” he shouted, seeing Los Angeles had taken the lead. “Go Dodgers!” 

Henry Palattella is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]