HARRISON, N.J. — There is no doubt the Columbus Crew will enjoy their Eastern Conference championship over the next 24 hours, but as manager Gregg Berhalter admitted after Sunday's game, there's still one key match ahead in the club's future.
“I want the guys to enjoy it, but we have bigger fish to fry," Berhalter said in his post-match press conference following the 1-0 loss at the New York Red Bulls that completed a 2-1 aggregate victory in the semifinals. "I wanted them to enjoy it on the podium. I wanted them to enjoy the trophy, but I told them they’re going to be remembered for the trophy they win next week. Not the one they win this week."
Berhalter is 100 percent right. No one will remember who wins the conference championships years from now, but everyone will recall who hoisted the MLS Cup to conclude the 2015 season.
Columbus earned its spot in next Sunday's final over the Red Bulls, who won the Supporters' Shield for the league's best regular-season record.
A victory over two legs and a home match to close out the postseason looked all but locked up for the Crew as second-half stoppage time approached, but one hiccup led to the most dramatic, and final, three minutes of the match. Two minutes after Anatole Abang scored the lone goal of the contest, Bradley Wright-Phillips' shot hit off the bottom-right part of the post before Kei Kamara cleared it off the line.
“I thought it was going wide of the post," center back Michael Parkhurst said. "When I looked at it, I thought it was going wide and then when it hit the post I was like, 'Holy smokes.' We didn’t make it easy on ourselves. We’re happy to advance."
Easy is the last word that would describe the Crew's path to the MLS Cup. In the playoffs, Columbus fought past an on-fire Montreal Impact side led by Didier Drogba before downing the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
The tone for the club's deep run into the postseason was set late in the regular season during a stretch of challenging games to close out the 34-game slate. Columbus earned the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference by shutting out Toronto FC and D.C. United in successive matches. The latter victory saw the Crew flex their offensive muscle in a 5-0 home triumph.
“We feel like we’re battle-tested, that’s for sure," Parkhurst said. "Even the way we finished the regular season, we had a lot of big games against playoff teams and it wasn’t easy. We had to fight hard to get to second place, and now looking back it’s important that we did because we get to host the cup."
The main tactical adjustment by the Crew that helped them get past the Red Bulls over two legs was to negate the pressure of manager Jesse Marsch's side.
"It wasn’t a typical performance by us, but we identified their strengths and we wanted to turn that against them," Berhalter said. "You gotta give the Red Bulls a lot of credit. They had a fantastic season and the way they play, it works perfectly. They create chances off their pressure and we wanted to eliminate that, and I think we did a good job."
Columbus kept Red Bulls leading scorer Wright-Phillips away from goal for most of the 180 minutes, and the full-back pairing of Waylon Francis and Harrison Afful marked Lloyd Sam and Mike Grella straight out of the series.
“Harrison and Waylon did a good job. They were big in this series," Berhalter said. "Our full-backs are very important in our system and integral in our attack and our defensive structure. I’m happy for their performance."
As for the center backs, Parkhurst, who partnered Tyson Wahl in the first leg and Gaston Sauro in the second, identified one key strength in the game of Wright-Phillips that was eliminated from the outset of the series.
“We didn’t let him in behind too often," Parkhurst said. "He makes really good moves in behind off the back shoulders of defenders. We were aware of those and we limited his chances of getting in behind us. We identified that as a big strength of his, and for the most part, I think we did a really good job of that."
After the final whistle blew on the second leg, the Crew began to shift their focus toward the MLS Cup against the Portland Timbers. Hosting the final game of the season is very important to everyone in the Crew organization.
"What I’m most proud of is we get to bring the MLS Cup final to the city of Columbus," Berhalter said. "The fans have been behind us all year. You see the excitement that was building for these playoff matches and now to be able to play the final in Columbus is special."
In the one match between the two sides this year, Portland defeated Columbus 2-1 at Mapfre Stadium behind a brace from Fanendo Adi.
"They’re the best team in the league away from home," Berhalter said. "They’ve been good, and it’s going to be a difficult game."
Whether or not the Crew come out on top next weekend remains to be seen, but over the last two months, they established themselves as the best representative of the Eastern Conference to challenge for the league's biggest trophy.
Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90.