COLUMBUS, OH – While New York City FC fans found themselves rooting against the narrative Tuesday night, there was reason to be optimistic. Columbus Crew SC were coming off a 120-minute marathon against one of the toughest squads in the league. On top of that, the Crew were facing immense pressure to perform in light of relocation news. What we saw Tuesday night was a tale of polar opposites.
As always, NYCFC was creating chances. Out-shooting Columbus 19-14 for the game, the Pigeons certainly had their opportunities to control this game early on. City had 8 shots in the first half, with David Villa taking the lead (4). In the second half, NYCFC would add 11 more shots, 6 of which came from Villa. Twitter was full of the familiar refrain: “City could easily be up X-Y right now.”
The only other performances that could be rated as “Good” from last night’s game are those from two players who maybe should have started the game: Ronald Matarrita and Andraz Struna. Struna’s impact was felt right away in the attack, as his first touch of the game was a great cross that found Villa’s head in front of goal, but Zack Steffen was up for it. Matarrita was one of the few who looked like he believed City could still salvage something late in the game.
Villa nabbed an important away goal in the 77th minute, but that seems an unlikely comfort to City fans. As it stands, NYCFC would have to win 3-0 in the turnaround at Yankee Stadium. In a matchup featuring 39 goals scored in 8 matches, a shutout seems impossible.
And that’s where the positives end.
Before last week’s match-up against Atlanta, Greg Berhalter noted that it was imperative his club take control and get comfortable in the opening minutes. In what was possibly the worst-case scenario for NYCFC, Ola Kamara scored in the 6th minute – sprung by a bad giveaway from Rodney Wallace deep in City’s defensive third. Sean Johnson saved the initial shot from Federico Higuain but couldn’t control the ball, which rolled to the waiting Kamara.
Ethan White had a curious turn at Right Back as well. It seemed as though he was being coached to get forward in the attack, but was pinching inside – toward the center of the pitch – much more often than we’ve seen in the past. Jack Harrison also struggled on the outside Tuesday night, getting dispossessed in key places and just generally having an off night with his first touch.
It goes without saying that Alex Callens’ 53rd minute red card was costly. Not only did it complicate things immensely for City at the time, but the club will have to play the second leg missing both of their starting center-backs.
Callens did something that isn’t uncommon on corner kicks. He threw an elbow (albeit a weak one) to try and disrupt a scoring opportunity. At the end of the day, substitute-ref Ismail Elfath made the right decision. He went to video review to confirm, saw the intent – which was definitely there – and removed Callens from the match.
It is unfortunate that a player who has broken out as a bright spot of NYCFC’s revamped defense faltered at the worst possible moment, but people calling for his head – saying he shouldn’t be brought back next season – are being far too short-sighted. Callens is a good center-back in a league not exactly known for great defense. He made a mistake – a costly one – and as someone who’s been around the NYCFC locker room a fair amount, I guarantee that not a single person feels worse about what happened than Callens himself.
Sean Johnson is not blameless in this match, either. The usually sure-handed ‘keeper had an uncharacteristically off night, letting some deflections roll away from him. It was a cold night in Columbus – snow was in the forecast, according to Taylor Twellman – so that may have had something to do with it. Regardless, Johnson has stepped up in a big way before, and when City was in a position to be bolstered by his leadership, it just wasn’t happening for him.
Lastly, I want to include everyone who was involved in the final goal from Harrison Afful in the “ugly” category. Afful methodically dismantled the NYCFC defense – making five people miss him in the span of just ten feet – en route to what could be the series-winning goal in stoppage time. Simply inexcusable.
NYCFC will host Columbus Sunday evening at 5pm. In a match for their lives, the Boys in Blue will have to step up and shutout the Crew, who are now unbeaten in 12 consecutive matches dating back to mid-August. A 3-0 win will do it, but can this team finally put their demons behind them?
It will take a gargantuan effort – something this team hasn’t shown in two months.
We’ll find out.