COLUMBUS, OH – New York City FC will open their 2017 MLS Playoff campaign on Halloween Night. Their familiar opponents – Columbus Crew SC – are coming off perhaps one of the most entertaining matches of the knockout round: a 0 – 0 draw against favored Atlanta United FC in Atlanta.
That knockout-round match was a statement from Columbus: “We belong here.” In a match that probably should not have gone to penalties after a controversial offside call negated a go-ahead goal from Ola Kamara, Greg Berhalter’s side showed that they can hang with the best, and in the most intimidating of venues in the league. Crew ‘keeper Zack Steffen had perhaps the standout goalkeeping performance of the season, and at the perfect time. Berhalter’s advice to his players prior to the game was “Play to the moment” – advice that the Boys in Blue would do well to remember.
“We relish the idea of knocking people off, and if you want to doubt us, if you want to not believe that we can come in and make some noise, then we’ll see what happens,” said Crew captain Will Trapp after the match. As if Columbus needed more motivation with the spectre of relocation looming (#SaveTheCrew), the Crew also have an underdog mentality. It’s easy to underestimate the MLS originals, as Columbus quietly qualified for the post-season while losing only two matches since Independence Day. The additions of Kekuta Manneh and Pedro Santos sparked the run that saw the Crew rise from bubble-club to bona fide contender. While the eyes of the MLS world were fixated on the incredible run of Atlanta United in their fist season, Columbus simply did their job – they got points where they had to.
And now, they’ve toppled the club many considered to be the only challenger to Toronto FC‘s historic run to the Cup.
New York City Preview
The post-Labor Day performance of NYCFC has not been ideal. With the opportunity to make it a real chase for the Supporter’s Shield in the early part of the month, one could argue that City dropped points to the likes of Colorado, Houston, New England and Columbus. For whatever reason, since David Villa was called to Spain, New York City just hasn’t performed to the level its fans have come to expect.
The good thing is that Villa has begun to score again. After going goalless in four matches after his call-up, el Guaje has tallied three in his last three. The club will need Villa to be at his peak if they are to have any hope of overcoming the emotionally-charged return of the Crew to their home grounds for the first time since relocation rumors began.
But it can’t just be Villa. Columbus has talent all over the field, and it will take all of NYCFC’s talent to match. Berhalter said after the Atlanta match that the key to his club’s victory was controlling the first ten minutes. It will be imperative for Patrick Vieira to make the right personnel choices to be as disruptive to that comfort as possible. Even with five days of rest, much of Columbus’ squad will be tired from their 120-minute ordeal in Atlanta. Luckily, City is in a position to exploit that.
Vieira can employ the likes of Ronald Matarrita and Jonathan Lewis, whose speed will be devastating to tired legs (early or late). Rodney Wallace – who has started consistently for NYCFC and played significant minutes for Costa Rica – has been less effective as the season has worn on. While removing him from the Starting XI would limit City’s size up front, the speed trade-off could be worth it in this situation.
No matter what, NYCFC have an uphill battle ahead. They face a club with an underdog mentality, returning home for the first time since news of a possible relocation broke. The crowd will be intimidating; the pressure will be high.
For the first time in their history, NYCFC have started to flip the narrative of being a club that wilts when the lights are brightest. Their true test starts Halloween Night in Columbus, and this time there’s no outside help.