Columbus Crew SC answer looming defensive questions: "We came together at the right moment"

For much of the second half of 2015, the story of Columbus Crew SC was an inability to stop good offensive teams.

With their season on the line, the defense stepped up. And now they're headed to the MLS Cup final.

First, they held the white-hot Didier Drogba to few chances and zero goals in their two-leg Eastern Conference Semifinal series. Then, against the best offensive team in MLS, Crew SC blanked the New York Red Bulls for 180 minutes in the Conference Championship before allowing a goal in the third minute of stoppage time.

“I just credit our preparation,” said midfielder Wil Trapp. “Our defenders were excellent – Michael [Parkhurst], Gaston [Sauro], Tyson [Wahl] in the first leg, Harrison [Afful], Waylon [Francis] – really good stuff. And Steve [Clark] as well, just communicating and sliding and trying to block everything.”

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The defensive performance came as a result of a shift in focus for Crew SC.

Normally a team accustomed to holding the ball and creating from possession, the club sat deeper than usual and kept New York on their toes with counterattacks from Ethan Finlay and Kei Kamara.

“We want to play where there’s an advantage,” Clark said. “If there’s an advantage in possession, we’ll play that. But if there’s an advantage with a team playing six or seven guys in press, we want to play behind the press. We can play both ways, it’s no problem.”

Crew SC coach Gregg Berhalter said his plans – as usual – were to score. A goal would have given Columbus an almost insurmountable three-goal aggregate lead (four, including the away goal tiebreaker); but the match remaining scoreless for so long nearly ended with Crew SC allowing two goals in stoppage time, which would have sent the match into extra time.

“You saw what our intentions were from the beginning: we wanted to score a goal,” Berhalter said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t do so and we let them hang in there. They get the goal in the 93rd minute and hit the post in the 95th minute. That’s soccer. I’m proud of my team. I’m proud of the way our guys managed this game.”

Kamara, the club's center forward who led the team with a league-high-tying 22 goals, became a de facto defender for the end of the match. He had the best seat for the tense moments at the end, guiding away a dribbling ball that hit the post in the 95th minute.

“There was part of me saying, there’s no way they can get two goals in the last two minutes of the game,” Kamara said. “I don’t know how I ended up in the back there for that last ball that hit the post. I tried for my leg to not turn spaghetti on me and kick it into my own net at the last minute.”

Stoppage time aside, the defense showed what it was made of.

And for midfielder Tony Tchani, it was a point of pride.

“I feel like we came together at the right moment,” he said. “During the season, we kind of struggled giving up goals, but once we made it to the playoffs, our goal was to show that we can take one game at a time and do a good job defensively. At this point in the season, if you concede a lot of goals, you’ll pay for it.”