TORONTO — With many of the players still slumped in their stalls more than 20 minutes after the game ended, the air of disappointment hung heavy in the Columbus Crew SC locker room on Wednesday night. This after losing 1-0 in the second leg of the Eastern Conference Championship to Toronto FC, ending their season.
After surrendering just one goal over 180 minutes of play against Toronto, the Supporters’ Shield champions and owners of the best regular-season in MLS history, the missed opportunity to reach the MLS Cup final for the second time in three seasons might well take the entire offseason to recover from.
"It sucks,” said midfielder Justin Meram. “I think we outplayed them in the first half and throughout 90 minutes. They didn’t really have much.”
Toronto had Jozy Altidore though, the scorer of the game’s only goal on the hour mark. Playing his first game in 24 days after being suspended for the first leg in Columbus last week, the US international buried his first goal of the Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs past Zack Steffen to cap off a crisp interchange between himself, Sebastian Giovinco and Victor Vazquez.
“We stymied them the way we wanted to, then we tried to hit them on the counter and we had a couple of chances to score and they did score,” said captain Wil Trapp.
That one moment aside, head coach Gregg Berhalter said his team did a stellar job on TFC’s three main attacking options, limiting them to six shots in total.
“Listen, I think we did a good job on those three, I really do, particularly on Giovinco, I think we did an excellent job on him, keeping him quiet,” he said. “The one little slipup, they took advantage of it and give them credit for that. That’s what this game is about, it’s about small moments.”
Steffen certainly did his part to keep Vazquez off the scoresheet. The second-year goalkeeper dove low to his right in the 26th minute to palm away the Spaniard’s penalty kick, awarded for a Josh Williams foul on Drew Moor.
Having already guided Columbus to a shootout win over Atlanta United in the Knockout Round, Steffen said his save came down to being patient.
“You’ve got to hold your ground for as long as possible, you don’t want to go early,” he said. “Vazquez is really talented and he would have seen me go early and he would have gone the other side.”
Facing elimination as the clock ticked down, the visitors pushed desperately for the goal that would have sent them through on the away-goals rule.
Some industrious work on the right wing from Meram in the 87th minute almost brought its reward. Forcing a turnover, Meram swung over a cross that glanced off the head of Adam Jahn and towards the far post and Ola Kamara, but with the gaping net at his mercy, the Norwegian international could only watch in horror as the ball bounced under his leg.
Rather than single out any of his teammates, Meram blamed himself for the missed opportunity.
“If my first touch is a half a yard better and Adam gets more of his head, maybe half an inch more on the ball ...," he said. "[But] this is sports, these are the moments and we fell short."
Wrapping up his first season as team captain, Trapp knows how close his club came.
“Look, we were inches away from scoring the tying goal, we give up one chance, they score,” he said. “Zack makes a huge save on the penalty and it’s a game of inches. You play all year for three inches. Ball doesn’t go under Ola’s foot, we score and we’re singing a different tune now.”