Columbus could not have done any more vs. MLS' elite team in Toronto
It's hard to see what else Columbus Crew SC could have done.
The moment after a playoff loss is often the moment when the picture of a team falls sharply into focus; playoff momentum and the stories that go with it have a way of hiding deficiencies that seem glaring when a team's campaign comes definitively to a halt.
But looking back at Columbus picking its way through a playoff field to go within inches of eliminating Toronto -- and all with an existential angst of relocation hanging over its head -- there are few moments or traits that jump out as fatal flaws. Gregg Berhalter kept his machine competitive to the end, but the bigger, better machine of Toronto was ultimately able to make the fine-tuning adjustments to end Crew SC's campaign.
It's been a season of two halves for the Crew. In early August they looked set for a second successive season of anonymity after the heights of hosting MLS Cup in 2015. Federico Higuain was missing, Ethan Finlay had been traded and the team was struggling to hold off Orlando for the Eastern Conference's final playoff place.
But slowly and surely, the team began to come together. Pedro Santos was signed and proved to be a versatile, key component of the team's revival as Berhalter tinkered with the side and eased Higuain back to full effectiveness. Ola Kamara continued to score goals and gradually, and with few neutral observers taking notice at first, Crew SC stopped dropping points and began an inexorable climb up the standings -- building dangerous unbeaten momentum as they arrived in the playoffs.
Once there, the Crew's playoff campaign was managed by Berhalter in resolutely organized fashion. Despite the revelation that the team could be no more in Ohio after 2018, and the emotions and rhetoric of the subsequent #SaveTheCrew campaign, Columbus' players always looked more likely to take advantage of an opponent's emotions than to get swept up by their own.
Atlanta was dispatched in a febrile atmosphere at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, with the help of some woodwork and a performance for the ages by Zack Steffen, then New York City FC fell apart after Alexander Callens' red card in the first leg. Even offered the chance to bully a weakened Toronto at home in the first leg of the Eastern Conference final, Berhalter elected to play the percentages and set himself up for an away goal at BMO Field.
And it nearly paid off. Crew SC going three at the back from the start of the second leg had Toronto scrambling throughout the first half, as Berhalter got the tactical jump on Greg Vanney, the newly crowned MLS coach of the year. Right to the end of the game, Berhalter stayed cool in his adjustments. Hector Jimenez initially looked like an odd replacement for the influential Santos, but his introduction gave more space for Kekuta Manneh to look for space out wide to stretch a tiring and compacted Toronto defense.
It was all very ... efficient. The Crew have been an efficient machine at their best this year, even if it's hard to point to any single element of the team, other than Steffen's penalty-saving ability, and call it the best in the league. Such stutters as there were in the final series included Justin Meram twice wasting great scoring chances that could have really put the pressure on Toronto, and the loss of Artur to suspension in leg two. But on the other hand, it was possible to write those events off within the margin of error for any playoff team.
And yet it wasn't enough. In the end, Crew SC's normal time record in these playoffs included one emphatic home win over NYCFC, a thrilling goalless draw in Atlanta and two nail-biting losses on the road to NYCFC and now Toronto -- a modest return. And ultimately, when the time finally came for them to chase a game, Columbus did not have a player, or combination of players, on the field capable of the mix of grit, vision and speed of thought to do what Sebastian Giovinco, Victor Vazquez and Jozy Altidore did on the decisive goal.
So in the end, if there were a fatal flaw for Columbus, it's that it played to the best of its abilities, but that the sum total of those abilities generally falls just short of those possessed by the elite team of the league. On the basis of Wednesday night's performance, nobody could have complained had Kamara got a shoelace width closer to the ball in the dying moments of the game to advance the Crew. But by the same token, anybody could look at Columbus being eliminated at this stage of its campaign and conclude that this is about as fair a conclusion as the team deserved.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.