COLUMBUS, Ohio – In a dramatic and controversial match that needed an extra time winner, Columbus Crew SC beat the Montreal Impact 3-1 at MAPFRE Stadium to clinch a berth in the Eastern Conference Championship against the New York Red Bulls.
Montreal entered the match with a 2-1 aggregate-goal lead after winning the first leg at home. To keep their season alive, Crew SC forced extra time with an Ethan Finlay equalizer in the 78th minute, and Kei Kamara sealed advancement with a 111th-minute winner.
Crew SC advance in the Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs to play the No. 1-seed New York Red Bulls for a chance to go to MLS Cup.
After a relatively muted performance by the Crew SC attack in Montreal last week, Gregg Berhalter's side came in with a different attitude on Sunday.
From the opening kickoff, Columbus looked like a different team. Fullbacks Harrison Afful and Waylon Francis were significantly more engaged than they were in the first leg, the hallmark of Crew SC’s attacking style.
That approach paid off immediately as Kamara wasted no time in ending his three-game scoring drought.
Federico Higuain sprang Francis free on the left side with a gorgeous, looping pass in the 4th minute, and the Costa Rican played a perfect cross to the head of Kamara, who turned it into the goal from point-blank range.
Kamara nearly put his team up 2-0 in the 12th minute, when he redirected an Afful cross onto the crossbar. Justin Meram and Finlay would both have similar dangerous opportunities, but Crew SC simply couldn’t convert, and their advantage would fade as the half wore on.
After about 30 minutes of Crew SC dominance, the Impact began settling into the game. Ignacio Piatti kickstarted the visitors' offense with a couple of long-range shots and the mounting Montreal pressure finally broke the Columbus backline in the 40th minute, but not without some controversy.
After a corner kick, center back Laurent Ciman put a ball back into the Columbus box that bounced around before landing on the foot of Dilly Duka, who appeared to be in an offside position. No call was made and the game was level at 1-1.
After a slow start to the second half, Columbus got another chance to retake the lead in the 67th minute with yet another dose of controversy.
Chasing a loose ball, Finlay beat Ciman to a spot on the edge of the Montreal penalty area. Ciman put both hands on Finlay, who was running away from goal and referee Armando Villareal immediately whistled for a penalty kick.
For the first time in 2015, MLS co-leading goalscorer Kamara stepped to the penalty spot. But with a relatively weak attempt, Kamara’s shot was saved by diving goalkeeper Evan Bush to preserve the draw.
With MAPFRE Stadium roaring, Finlay would lift Crew SC level on aggregate, and yet again players and fans were asking questions of Villarreal.
Crew SC sub Cedrick Mabwati crossed a ball in from the left side which deflected to another substitute, Jack McInerney, who took a shot that was parried by Bush. But the rebound fell to a streaking Finlay, who scored on an open net in the 78th minute.
As time wound down, Columbus put themselves in dangerous positions by giving away a series of set pieces to Montreal and Drogba. But last-ditch defending and solid goalkeeping from Crew SC's Steve Clark preserved the score, forcing extra time.
In the first half of extra time, Crew SC continued their habit of creating without results. Playing with their save-the-season lineup filled with attackers, they continued to throw men forward, but could not break through.
But in the second half of extra time, Columbus found their breakthrough.
In the 111th minute, Finlay found Mabwati on the left side. The Congolese winger swung a perfect ball to the far post, where Kamara was waiting to leap over a defender and loop a perfect header into the far corner to give Columbus a 4-3 aggregate win in the series.
Crew SC will host the Red Bulls on November 22 for the first leg of their Conference Championship series while the Impact will head home after their most successful season in MLS.
You can’t win in the playoffs if your stars don’t play like stars. Kei Kamara, Ethan Finlay and Wil Trapp played like stars. Didier Drogba, Ignacio Piatti and Laurent Ciman decidedly did not.
Drogba’s disappearance was particularly shocking given his well-earned reputation as a big-game player, and the fact that he’d basically stomped a hole into the rest of MLS since his arrival. But Gregg Berhalter made a calculated risk, pulling right back Harrison Afful inside a step or two to help out Michael Parkhurst, and it worked:
Drogba completed less than half his pass attempts in the attacking half, had only a few half-chances, and generally didn’t influence the proceedings. Crew SC executed their game plan, and that’s why they’ll advance to face the Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference Championship.
– By Matt Doyle, Senior Editor