Columbus Crew hold on, sneak past NYCFC into conference finals

David Villa scored from the spot, but the Columbus Crew advanced to the conference finals on aggregate. (Getty)

Exhale, Columbus. Breathe. The “onslaught,” as Wil Trapp called it, has ceased. The Crew are through.

Over a nerve-wracking, dramatic 90 minutes at Yankee Stadium on Sunday, New York City FC did everything it could to erase a 4-1 first-leg deficit in MLS’ Eastern Conference semifinals. It went 1-0 up from the penalty spot, 2-0 up early in the second half, and threw everything it had at Columbus in its search for a third goal. That third would have sent New York to the conference finals on away goals, and would have sent Columbus crashing out in heartbreaking fashion.

But the Crew persevered. They survived several stoppage-time scrambles, and secured two dates with Toronto FC, with the right to host the MLS Cup on the line.

That’s all Columbus fans could have asked for. It’s all the players wanted to provide them with. With fans fighting for the club’s future, and fretting over the possibility that its future might not include Columbus, “we repurposed our mission,” manager Greg Berhalter had said after Tuesday’s 4-1 win back in Ohio. “It’s solely to play for the fans and give them as many home games as we can and let them enjoy something.”

Consider the next stage of that mission accomplished. And consider a new stage launched.

But only barely. Only by the skin of their teeth. By the width of a post. By a miss here, a decision there, several moments that could have cut down the pesky underdogs just as they began to capture the hearts and minds of American soccer.

NYCFC took the lead through David Villa. Rodney Wallace was taken down in the penalty box by an unaware Josh Williams, and Villa made no mistake from the spot:

The Crew had the occasional first-half chance of their own. Sean Johnson made a flying, top-hand save to deny Justin Meram.

But the visitors were sent further back on their heels shortly after halftime. Andraz Struna’s deflected shot left Zack Steffen helpless:

But Steffen came up big to deny Jack Harrison later in the half, and his near post came to the rescue when Wallace beat him on the half-volley.

Berhalter has never been one to program his team to park the bus. Because of their identity, the Crew looked oddly uncomfortable in their position of superiority. They pushed for a goal of their own, but with every NYCFC chance, they looked more and more nervous. More and more likely to self-destruct.

The substitution of Lalas Abubakar helped stabilize things late, but even then, Columbus seemed to be hanging on by a fingernail. New York, though, couldn’t conjure up a third, and were left to rue the concession of a fourth goal in stoppage time five days earlier.

The Crew, on the other hand, will retrospectively celebrate that goal, just as they did on that wild night at Mapfre Stadium earlier in the week. A small pocket of traveling fans stayed behind after the final whistle to salute their team.

They’ll get at least one more moment in the spotlight. One more party. One more platform to grow the resistance. And two games to extend their stunning, defiant run all the way to the MLS Cup.

– – – – – – –

Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.