COLUMBUS, Ohio – With a 2-0 win at home in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Championship against the New York Red Bulls, Columbus Crew SC are in the driver’s seat to advance to their first MLS Cup since they won it in 2008.
But even with an obvious advantage ahead of a trip to Red Bull Arena next Sunday, Gregg Berhalter and his team say their gaze is firmly on the task at hand and not a potential final.
“We’re halfway into the series, and we think we’re in a good spot,” Berhalter said. “But there’s a lot of work to do, and the message to the group is: this isn’t over by a long shot, and it’s going to take an even better effort next week to reach the final.”
Berhalter was asked how he will keep his team’s focus on the Red Bulls and not playing for a trophy, and the Crew SC boss said he’s far from concerned.
“We’re focused; I don’t have to keep the focus of this group,” he said. “They’re focused on the game already, so that’s not going to be challenging.”
Perhaps the greatest – and most surprising – achievement of the victory was Columbus holding New York to a shutout. They kept just four clean sheets at MAPFRE Stadium all season.
With the 2-0 scoreline, Columbus not only eliminated the feared away goal, but became the first team to hold New York scoreless since their May 24 match against the Philadelphia Union. And for Crew SC, that shutout is a point of pride.
“For me, the shutout is the most important part,” Wil Trapp said. “We’re confident that on the road we can possibly get a goal. Any time you leave [the opponent] with no road goals is huge, moving forward. And the way we’re attacking and Kei [Kamara] is scoring goals and other guys are contributing, we’re confident.”
And while they’re not looking forward to a potential final just yet, Crew SC players are eager to get to New York for the next match, and are already thinking about what needs to be done.
“We just have to stay within ourselves and manage the game,” Ethan Finlay said. “Our goal was setting ourselves up for the second leg, and I think we’ve done that very well tonight. Saying that, we still have 90 minutes and maybe more to play, and I think we’ll be ready for that.”
On the Columbus roster, only the team’s captain Michael Parkhurst has been to an MLS Cup.
Despite being one of the younger squads in MLS and largely without the experience of a championship match, Trapp says he and the others aren’t getting ahead of themselves.
“It’s funny, because I’m not really thinking about [MLS Cup],” he said. “It’s just another game, really. And that’s a testament to this group of just being so focused on executing our game plan. The moments haven’t been too big for us so far, and I think that’s a credit to the way the coaches have prepared us and keeping it about our style of play and playing for each other.”
But even with a 2-0 advantage, Crew SC know they can’t brush off the Supporters’ Shield champions.
“We have the momentum over them, at the moment, because we got the two-nil at home,” Justin Meram said. “But they’re a good team.”