A funny thing happened on the way to these Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs Conference Semifinals:
Columbus Crew SC played their game.
The one that triggered an undefeated run that dates back to August. That took out Atlanta United. That has New York City FC on the precipice of a second consecutive postseason meldown. (Who am I kidding? The meltdown manifested in a sea of, uhm ... ah ... Afful broken ankles in stoppage time Monday night.)
Yes, the game against Atlanta was scoreless, thanks to some overactive woodwork and unbelievable efforts from Zack Steffen. But that pressure wasn't one-sided, and the longer ATLUTD didn't break through in front of that record crowd, the better Columbus's chance to advance. Steffen stoning the first two PKs only made the coronation official.
Yes, NYCFC played a man down for nearly the entirety of the second half and missed opportunities, but Columbus was already ahead at that point – despite playing belowtheir 1.56 expected goals on eight first-half shots. The next two goals came quickly after the red, and Afful iced everything at 90'+3'.
They head to NYC with a three-goal cushion, and any away strike would push the catch-up margin to four. Count on the goal. The aggression has been there, and the breakthroughs have followed.
“There’s no chance we’re going to go and (play with) 11 guys inside the penalty box," Berhalter told reporters this week. "That’s not who we are. We want to try to score a goal there, and I don’t think the game plan would be any different if there was any other scoreline.”
Compare that with the muted outputs – and efforts – of the Vancouver Whitecaps FC and the Houston Dynamo, who combined for two shots on goal (while allowing but three) in their home legs. Both enter their away legs even, with another scoreless draw sending them to PKs, and a victory or any other even margin pushing them on to the Conference Championship.
Perhaps both squads can turn on the offense, or catch the break they need in tough circumstances – it'll take but one early goal to put all the pressure squarely on the home squads.
Columbus, however, has already flipped that script. And it, too, marked a choice:
“We repurposed our mission right now, and it’s solely to play for the fans and give them as many home games as we can and let them enjoy something,” Berhalter said after Tuesday's victory.
Crew SC supporters are doing exactly that. Another home game is coming, and we should have learned better than to assume it will be the last.