NEW YORK CITY, NY – On a chilly Sunday night in November, New York City FC very nearly created a memory that would have lived in club lore forever. Down 4-1 to Columbus Crew SC after the first leg of the Eastern Conference Semi-Final, City needed to come away 3-0 victors or better to have any hope of advancing…and they almost did it.
One popular criticism after the first leg was that NYCFC lacked urgency in their play. The club was almost too calm on the ball. Despite an incredible 87% completion percentage in that match, the play seemed uncoordinated and disjointed.
Sunday’s second leg looked like a completely different team. The Boys in Blue played hard from the very first minute, with no hesitation and the creativity of their midfield and forwards on display (though not always with the best results). You get the sense that had this City team shown up in Columbus earlier this week, they may not have been in the situation they found themselves in tonight.
An early penalty in the 15th minute drawn by Rodney Wallace saw captain David Villa put the home side up 1-0. Greg Berhalter seemed content to have his squad sit back and defend for most of the game, only taking token chances here and there. His philosophy seemed to be one of “the only way to win is not to play.” Columbus took every opportunity to lay on the ground and delay the game, and Zack Steffen spent what seemed like a full ten minutes placing and running up to his goal kicks. Fair play, of course, and you can’t say that City would not have done the same in a similar position.
Regardless of the Crew’s time-wasting, NYCFC did what they do best – created chances. On all fronts Maxi Moralez, Jack Harrison, Yangel Herrera and Wallace combined with Ronald Matarrita and Andraz Struna to put ball after ball into dangerous positions. Still, through the first half at least, City struggled to complete that final pass in the box. They would go into the half in good position to capitalize, remaining a confident 1-0 ahead.
With only 45 minutes to make up their deficit, NYCFC came out firing on all cylinders in the second half. Despite the relentless attack, Berhalter remained squarely in the “park the bus” camp, running what amounted to a 5-5-0 as the minutes ticked away. Nine of City’s sixteen shots came in the second half as they desperately tried to close the aggregate gap.
Suddenly, in the 53rd minute Andraz Struna came out of nowhere and just shot the ball into the box and hoped for the best. He got it, ricocheting an own goal off Jonathan Mensah that Steffen just couldn’t get a good hand on. Struna’s effort would put NYCFC one goal away from erasing their 4-1 deficit with 37 minutes left to play.
Columbus got more aggressive following the second goal. In the 69th minute the first sub came in – Kekutah Manneh – and promptly did everything he could to either grab an away goal for his side or follow the plan of “just waste time.”
Patrick Vieira, not wanting to waste precious minutes, didn’t make his first substitution until the 82nd minute when he brought in Sean Okoli for Struna. With Columbus parking the bus and not pressing the City midfield at all, lofted crosses were all the Pigeons could do to try and get the final goal. Okoli’s hold-up play has been a strength in his limited minutes, but City was struggling to get clean passes into the box.
Enter Andrea Pirlo. Pirlo is actually exactly the type of player Vieira needed to unlock the Crew defense and maybe – just maybe – put this match to bed.
The stage was set for Pirlo – playing his final minutes as a professional – to play the hero in the Bronx.
Sadly, it was not to be. Had Vieira put him in earlier than the 90th minute – given him time to find the right weight to his passes, maybe he could have made a bigger difference. Unfortunately, il Maestro’s most dangerous passes were simply weighted too heavily and ran harmlessly out of bounds.
Jonathan Lewis came in at the 92nd minute – and for the closing minutes of the match City had one final volley of chances pinging around in the box, but it just wasn’t in the cards. The final whistle blew, and NYCFC found themselves just a single goal shy of advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals.
NYCFC won their first playoff match in club history while simultaneously ending Columbus’ 12-match unbeaten run that dated back to mid-August. While the Boys in Blue did pull a quintessentially New York sports meme – doing just enough to really break your heart – out of their hat, there is not one fan out there that should be upset with the performance tonight.
City held Columbus scoreless for the first time in any meeting between the two clubs. Ben Sweat and Frederic Brillant did extremely well playing the ball out of the back and not letting too much get through. The shots that did make it through were (mostly – except for one precarious ricochet) handled deftly by Sean Johnson, who provided a season-long stability in goal that fans can now rely on.
There is uncertainty ahead – Jack Harrison is gaining international notoriety. Yangel Herrera is an up-and-coming star with question marks about where he’ll land next season. Andrea Pirlo is retiring. David Villa will be in the final year of his contract next season.
But no matter what your feelings on this season are, tonight’s performance should have accomplished at least one thing:
Making you want more.
I cannot wait for January.
Author’s Note: The NYCFC Nation Podcast will be massive this week! All of our contributors will be on the show, sharing our opinions and recapping the 2017 MLS season, speculating on offseason moves and more! Check it out mid-week everywhere Podcasts are downloaded.