Columbus Crew SC take their chances against misfiring New York City FC
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- On a chilly night at MAPFRE Stadium, the Columbus Crew extended their unbeaten streak to 12 games, dispatching New York City FC in the opening leg of their Eastern Conference semifinal.
The 4-1 win puts the home side in prime position to advance following Sunday's match at Yankee Stadium. Here are three thoughts from the match:
1. For the Crew, a tale of two halves
It was not a good opening 45 minutes from the Crew. Five days after shocking Atlanta United and earning the right to host Tuesday's semifinal, the Black and Gold scored in the sixth minute but should have had multiple tallies and put the game away.
Justin Meram and Ola Kamara missed easy chances for a 2-0 lead, and the midfielder's was an open net -- ESPN stats guru Paul Carr reported that the Crew's average expected goals per shots was nearly twice the MLS season average.
When the attack wasn't whiffing, the backline was turning the ball over in dangerous positions. More than anything, it was New York's inability to finish that kept it scoreless, although goalkeeper Zack Steffen came off his line quickly to scoop up loose balls on multiple occasions.
The second half was a different story, and by the 69th minute, the result was well in hand for the home team. NYCFC's Alexander Callens was shown a VAR-assisted red card for an elbow to Meram in the 52nd, then Brazilian midfielder Artur scored in the 58th. By the time Meram got on the scoresheet in the 69th minute, with an assist to Sean Johnson's poor goalkeeping, the contest appeared to be over.
The visitors earned one back in the 78th minute on David Villa's spinning volley following a slip by center-back Jonathan Mensah before Harrison Afful dribbled through five NYCFC defenders for the final tally. It's a victory coach Gregg Berhalter will take.
Columbus has 1.56 xG on eight first-half shots.— Paul-tergeist Carr (@PCarrESPN) November 1, 2017
That average of 0.195 xG per shot is nearly double the MLS season average of 0.11 xG/shot.
2. NYCFC's offensive troubles continue
Patrick Vieira's high-flying side started the 2017 regular season with 47 goals in their first 25 matches. It ended it with just nine in its final nine. The confines of MAPFRE Stadium did nothing to spark the attack, despite a series of Crew turnovers that seemed almost designed to provide chances for the visitors.
Villa, who scored twice in a 2-2 Decision Day draw with the Crew, failed to find the frame on four separate occasions in the first half. On another night, the Spanish superstar would have netted two or three by himself in the initial 45.
The second half looked to be more of the same as Villa found a chance in the 48th minute, only to see his shot deflected over the bar. But Callens' red card and Artur's goal in quick succession changed things for the visitors, who could only look to limit the damage.
The lopsided result doesn't mean they are out -- Villa's late tally is a vital away goal -- but they'll need to fix their offensive woes by Sunday. Villa & Co. found success at home, scoring 31 of their 56 goals there during the campaign, so it's possible they'll pull off the comeback in the bandbox that is Yankee Stadium.
The trends, and the scoreline, are not in their favor though.
3. Save The Crew is here to stay -- but are the Crew?
Two hours before kickoff, a plane pulling a banner reading "Keep The Crew In Columbus -- SaveTheCrew.com" flew over the stadium.
In the adjoining parking lot, Crew diehard fans displayed their best homemade black-and-gold-colored flags featuring slogans supporting their hometown team.
When the game started, they packed the Nordecke, sending a message: As long as the Crew are here instead of Austin, Texas, where owner Anthony Precourt hopes to move them, the Save The Crew movement won't be quiet. (If there was any doubt, a rousing "Save The Crew" chant in the 36th minute dispelled that notion, as did a creative, expletive-focused one later in the match.)
From that perspective, the evening's showing was encouraging for those hoping to keep the MLS squad in Ohio. Other signs, however, weren't. Fewer than 14,500 fans showed up to watch the home playoff, a pitiful number that continued a yearlong trend.
During the season, the Black and Gold averaged just 15,439 fans per match, down 10 percent from 2016 and ahead of only the Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas in MLS.
MAPFRE was filled to just 77 percent capacity in 2017 -- ranking them 20th in the league.
A Tuesday night in late October -- on Halloween, no less! -- is far from ideal for fan support. And yet, the plethora of empty seats spoke volumes about the future.
Tuesday's result means Crew supporters are the favorites to get another chance to impress in the conference finals. Tuesday night's final chant? "We're not done yet."
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.