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Columbus Crew SC saving their celebrating for MLS Cup

HARRISON, N.J. -- Based solely on their facial expressions following Sunday's decisive second-leg match in the Eastern Conference championship, one might have thought it was the New York Red Bulls -- not Columbus Crew SC -- that had advanced to next week's MLS Cup final in Ohio's capital city.

Red Bulls boss Jesse Marsch smiled broadly as he stepped behind the podium, although it did little to mask the pain of the 2-1 aggregate defeat as he talked, accurately, about the unqualified success his revamped, Supporters' Shield-winning team had been during his first season at the helm.

A few minutes later it was Gregg Berhalter's turn. The Crew SC manager, who in his sophomore season in charge had just led Columbus to only its second title match in 20 years, stood there with arms folded across his chest, stoic, his responses to reporters' questions short and spoken in a volume barely above a whisper. Still, the message was received loud and clear.

"I'm proud of my team, I'm proud of the way the guys managed this game," Berhalter said of a match in which the hosts, who needed two goals to send the series to extra time, didn't score until the 93rd minute. "But we're not finished."

As much as Berhalter and his players talked about how the job was only half done following last week's 2-0 win in Columbus, the truth is the Crew fully expected to advance. While the euphoria and relief was plain for all to see after the visitors survived the Red Bulls' last-gasp onslaught -- a Bradley Wright-Phillips header hit the post just two minutes after Anatole Abang opened the scoring -- there was no overt celebrating in the away locker room. Beforehand, Berhalter had decided there would be no champagne.

And other than the last two minutes, there were no nerves from Crew SC, who looked completely in control until the final, hectic moments.

"I'm thinking, 'Holy smokes, please go wide,'" captain Michael Parkhurst said of Wright-Phillips' near miss. "To make it this far in the playoffs, you need to have a little bit of luck. Hopefully we haven't used it all up and we have some left for next week."

Columbus will host the Portland Timbers in the finale at Mapfre Stadium. The Timbers won the only meeting between the teams during the regular season, beating Columbus 2-1 at home on Sept. 26. It was one of Portland's seven road victories in 2015, tied (with Vancouver) for tops in league.

"They've been good and it's going to be a very difficult game," Berhalter said of the Crew's looming opponents, adding that the big-game experience his squad picked up in a tough two-legged loss to New England last fall, as well as down the stretch this season and so far in these playoffs has them "tested and ready." Will it be enough to claim a championship against a foe that failed to reach the postseason in 2014? "We'll find out next week," he said.

Staying stingy will be key. Defense has become one of the team's strengths lately; this from a team that conceded 53 goals during the regular season, more than any other playoff team outside of Toronto.

Kei Kamara
Kei Kamara and his Columbus Crew SC teammates showed some emotion after their win on Sunday, but it was all business after the game in preparation for Sunday's MLS Cup final.

"We're very happy with how the defense has played in the playoffs," Parkhurst said. "We went through a tough patch in the regular season where we gave up a lot of goals. Everyone's raised their play a little bit and we've been making plays defensively."

It turned out to be the difference against New York, as the Crew could not get the away goal they wanted despite several near misses in the first half at Red Bull Arena.

That stout defense will have to continue on Sunday if Columbus is to take the title, even if the club scored the second-most goals at home this season (38). If they pull it off, the party will last long into the offseason.

"The ultimate goal is not there yet, so there's no reason to celebrate," midfielder Justin Meram said. "The Eastern Conference championship, yeah, it's good. But MLS Cup is when the champagne will be out."

The smiles, too.

Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.

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