There’s still 90 minutes of soccer to be played in the Bronx, but NYCFC faces what is, at best an uphill climb, and, at worst, an absolute impossible task against the Columbus Crew.
In the wake of relocation talk and a slew of off the field debate, the Crew thumped NYCFC, 4-1, in the opening leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals to seal a resounding advantage heading towards Sunday’s second leg at Yankee Stadium. It may be a mountain too big to climb for NYCFC, who face a frustrating, lopsided playoff elimination for the second season running.
Here’s a look at Sunday’s match:
First Leg Recap
The first leg was not good for NYCFC, and that’s putting it lightly. They lost Alexander Callens, their most consistent defender, due to a very avoidable red card that now leaves their defense exposed. But, more importantly, they lost 4-1, leaving little hope heading into a home leg.
In some ways, the scoreline flatters the Crew a bit, though. Throughout the first half, NYCFC was actually the aggressor, failing to bury chance after chance. The opener changed the game a bit, but Callens’ dismissal turned everything on its head.
From there, goals poured in. Eventually, NYCFC was facing a manageable 3-1 deficit, but Harrison Afful’s late dribble through the backline was a killer. Now, NYCFC will need a 3-0 win or better at home to advance.
Players to Watch
NYCFC: David Villa
If NYCFC is to have any hope, David Villa will need to do something superhuman. Now, he’s done superhuman things before, but the task might even be too tall for the Spanish legend.
Villa uncharacteristically wasted a few early chances in the opening leg before burying an away goal when it was too little, too late. An early Villa goal on Sunday would open up a bit of doubt and give NYCFC a slight chance at making a push out of the hole from the opening leg.
CREW: Federico Higuain
The Crew playmaker pulled plenty of strings in the opening leg, providing a primary assist and a secondary assist on the middle two goals. He was active, involved and accurate, making for a very good performance in a very big game.
Now, the Crew head into Yankee Stadium knowing one goal will all but lock up the series. That goal is most likely to involve Higuain, who will be attacking a weakened NYCFC defense.
Matchup to Watch
Wil Trapp and Artur vs. Maxi Moralez
The Crew defensive midfield was very good in the opening leg. Artur scored a wonderful goal in the moments following the red card. Wil Trapp was a little quieter, but did his typical defensive duties while moving the ball fairly well.
They won’t need to produce goals or assists or magical moments on Sunday. Instead, they’ll simply be on shutdown duty against Maxi Moralez. The Argentinian is the key piece that connects the NYCFC midfield to the attack and, if you starve him of the ball, it forces NYCFC into uncomfortable situations. Largely, the Crew need to just keep things calm through 90 minutes, and limiting Moralez will go a long way towards doing that.
NYCFC: Jack Harrison
Villa is going to need help on Sunday, and a lot of it. For as good as he is, he can’t overturn a deficit like this himself. He’ll need his teammates to get involved early and often.
Jack Harrison is the biggest candidate to do so after a relatively quiet first leg. The English star has been just that all season: a star. He’ll need to attack Hector Jimenez and force the mistake-prone central defense of Jonathan Mensah and Josh Williams into uncomfortable situations. Within a tight Yankee Stadium field, that’s easier said than done, but Harrison’s speed and dribbling ability will be a vital weapon.
CREW: Jonathan Mensah
For 90 percent of every match he plays in, Jonathan Mensah looks like a DP-level defender. For the other 10 percent, though? Not so much.
Mensah is a player that ranges from solid and dependable to inconsistent and infuriating. He holds strong for large stretches, but he’s made a habit of making vital mistakes at the wrong time. On Sunday, Mensah needs more of the 90 and less of the 10. One or two mistakes will happen, but if the Crew defense can avoid catastrophe, they’ll be fine.
Let’s just get it out of the way: NYCFC is in big, big trouble. They could play virtually flawless on Sunday and still not advance. Virtually flawless won’t be good enough.
NYCFC will almost certainly need to keep a clean sheet. Allowing an away goal would force Patrick Vieira’s team to score four goals, which isn’t impossible but it is unlikely. A 3-0 home win is their best bet, and to do that, they’ll need to score early and put on pressure from there. However, they can’t push too hard and give up a goal that would all but end their season.
On the other end, the Crew are relatively comfortable, and they should be. They have plenty of wiggle room and simply need to play their game. There could be temptation to bunker, but you probably don’t want to invite on any more pressure than you have to. Instead, look for the Crew to go for the kill with a goal and play through their talented attack.
Overall, Sunday will either be a major case of going through to motions or a major miracle in a series that looks to have been very much decided in the opening leg.