Wednesday night was an opportunity for the Columbus Crew. It was an opportunity to go into a hostile environment, score a goal and book an MLS Cup berth. It was an opportunity to continue a magical run punctuated by big moments and stunning results. It was an opportunity to put relocation’s rumors and franchis uncertainty behind them, a chance to keep the focus on that field.
That opportunity slipped away on Wednesday night by the thinnest of margins. There were chances squandered throughout the 90 minutes, and a Jozy Altidore goal was all it took to push Toronto FC to the MLS Cup Final via a 1-0 win.
For the Crew, that goal and the ensuing goalscoring struggles signaled an end to a season that, for several weeks, looked and felt like it could have ended in an MLS Cup.
“I thought we played a good game. It was one chance and they have quality so they finished the chance,” captain Wil Trapp said. “We had chances, we didn’t finish. That’s the game, it’s cruel but that’s how it goes. They’re a good team and they’ll punish you.
“I think the whole series was (close),” added defender Josh Williams. “One goal separated us. They had the PK but you have to finish your chances and they were able to. I thought the whole series was pretty even.”
For a majority of the two matches, the two teams were certainly level. After a drab first half draw that saw the Crew maintain a bulk of the possession, Gregg Berhalter’s side emerged with a tactical wrinkle in leg 2. With Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore back, Berhalter opted for a three-at-the-back system, one which stifled TFC early.
Berhalter says he was largely happy with how Wednesday’s match went. From a tactical standpoint, the Crew and TFC matched up evenly for a majority of the match. Save for a first-half penalty kick that saw goalkeeper Zack Steffen make yet another highlight-reel save, the Crew looked comfortable throughout the first half.
What the Crew were unable to find is a precious road goal and, because of that, one mistake was enough for Altidore to find space and bury what turned out to be the winning goal.
“I think we did a great job with those guys, especially Giovinco,” Berhalter said. “I think we did an excellent job keeping him quiet. The one big moment, the one little slip up they took advantage of and that’s what this game is about. It’s about the small moments and give them credit for that.
“We knew Eastern Conference Finals would come down to a moment like that and unfortunately, they made the right play and we made the wrong play.”
The biggest instance? A second-half push from the team that saw a looping ball fired into the box by Justin Meram. Adam Jahn got his head to it slightly, and the ball flew by a wide-open Ola Kamara, who saw it too late to react and deliver what would have been a series-clinching goal.
Now, the Crew look ahead to what will certainly be a busy offseason. They’ll likely need to replace midfield star Artur, whose suspension was felt in a big way on Wednesday. They’ll probably address the defense, even if the unit was generally solid through the postseason.
For the next few weeks and months, the focus will be on two things: what could have been and what may be in the team’s future. Austin looms large and the battle to keep the Crew in Columbus will rage on for quite some time.
For now, though, the Crew look back at a season full of highs and lows, one that ended on Wednesday by the narrowest of margins.
“There’s lots of positives to take away and a lot of things we can improve on,” Trapp said. “I think it’s good that we’re disappointed. It shows how much belief we had, how the season had progressed as a group and our camaraderie, our spirit and our faith in each other continued to grow until the last minute.
“It’s not an ending point for us. We’ve got a lot of new guys this year and I think it’s just going to improve. “