In the opening leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals at MAPFRE Stadium, Crew SC came up with the two biggest on both ends and that’s why they head to Red Bull Arena next Sunday with a 1-0 lead in the aggregate series.
Meanwhile, the Red Bulls are left to lament a lack of sharpness in the attacking third that has put the Supporters’ Shield champions’ back against the wall.
“If we’re a little bit calmer in moments and just a bit sharper up the field, I think we can create clear-cut chances,” Red Bulls coach Chris Armas said after the game. “Some of the crosses weren’t quite there, some errant crosses, just some of the final plays. We’ll get sharper for the next leg.”
It can be argued both teams had one golden opportunity apiece in the second half. Columbus finished clinically when the influential Federico Higuain, who came on for the start of the second half, helped set up Gyasi Zardes to put Crew SC in front in the 61st minute.
Bradley Wright-Phillips was close to a dramatic equalizer, and scoring the critical away goal, at the death. But his glancing stoppage-time header was somehow pushed away by Zack Steffen with referee Nima Saghafi blowing the full-time whistle shortly thereafter.
“We didn’t get enough quality chances,” Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles said. “That’s something that’s going to be different and something we’re going to work on all week, is making sure we get some good looks on goal.”
Outside of that opportunity and Tim Parker’s header off the post in the first half, there was little bite in the Red Bulls attack. With the game stretched a bit, Danny Royer got in behind the Crew SC defense, but Steffen raced off his line to beat him to the ball.
Nov 4, 2018; Columbus, OH, USA; Columbus Crew SC defender Jonathan Mensah (4) reacts after the end of the game against New York Red Bulls at Mapfre Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports
A team that was among the leaders in goals scored looked pedestrian in attack.
“If we’re sharper when we have the ball and win many of those pressing moments or transition moments, maybe it looks a little different,” Armas said. “We’ll take a lot of positives going back to our building.”
Now the Red Bulls return home, where they were 14-2-1 during the regular season. They know a clean sheet and more clinical finishing is all that’s needed to erase the early deficit. But they’ve also not beaten Crew SC this year and Columbus is one of two teams to leave Red Bull Arena with three points.
“When we look at ourselves, we just feel like that wasn’t our best,” Robles said. “That’s tough to swallow right now. … We’ve had our backs against the wall before and the belief is high and confidence is great that we’re going to do something special, that we have what it takes to overcome this obstacle.”
“Next week when we play them at Red Bull Arena on Sunday,” Robles vowed, “we will be better.”
They will have to be in order to avoid another year of playoff failure.