New England Revolution took a major step toward qualification for the Eastern Conference final, beating Columbus Crew 4-2 in Ohio to set up the perfect scenario for the return at Gillette Stadium next Sunday.
The first chance of the match fell to the visitors and found Charlie Davies isolated in front of goal. The striker attempted a cheeky backheel but missed the ball completely, and he really should have done better with the early look on goal.
Both teams came out with a lot of aggression in the first half, but official Drew Fischer took a wait-and-see approach, letting both teams battle it out in the centre of the pitch. Revolution manager Jay Heaps didn't appreciate the referee allowing plenty of contact, via the MLS' official Twitter feed:
New England had the better of play in the first half, with Lee Nguyen in particular putting in an excellent performance. Finding Andrew Farrell inside the box, stopper Steve Clark was forced into making a spectacular save to deny the visitors from scoring that all-important away goal.
Nguyen's brilliance throughout the match drew rave reviews from Goal's Ives Galarcep:
Justin Meram should have opened the scoring for the hosts in the 29th minute, after the New England defence failed to pick him up inside the box. With all the time in the world to shoot, the forward aimed his shot too high, hitting the crossbar.
Columbus were punished for their inefficiency minutes later, as Davies scored a diving header to give the visitors the lead. The forward produced an odd celebration:
The Revolution pushed for a second goal and Jermaine Jones forced Clark into another save just before half-time, but the hosts stood firm. The 15-minute break clearly favored the visitors, who came out pressing high in the second half, and Teal Bunbury should have made it 2-0 from close range within minutes of the restart.
The goal came just moments later, however, as Chris Tierney produced a stunning free-kick to double the visitors' advantage. Clipping the crossbar, Clark had no chance of saving the effort, and ESPN FC's Jason Davis was impressed:
New England appeared in control of the match, but Columbus gave the hometown fans some hope with 30 minutes left to play. Meram, playing a dreadful match up until that point, was presented with an open goal after a poor Revs clearance, and the forward didn't miss.
It was a great day for original celebrations, via Kick TV:
The goal appeared to wake the home team up, and Columbus surged forward in search of an equalizer. Federico Higuain was lively but wasteful up front for the Crew, and Meram continued to struggle with New England's high press.
The visitors aimed for the counter-attack and found success in the 71st minute, as Nguyen crowned his great match with a goal of his own. Waylon Francis was given a yellow card for apparently striking Jones in the face in the process, as official Fischer started to lose control of the match.
Canadian Soccer News' Duane Rollins was hardly surprised:
Frustration started boiling over for Columbus, and New England took advantage by adding a fourth, as Davies found the back of the net after another great counter.
ESPN's Taylor Twellman thought Crew's biggest weakness was plain to see on Saturday:
Facing a three-goal deficit with four away goals for New England, one would have expected the hosts to throw everything forward in a desperate attempt to score one more ahead of the trip to Gillette Stadium.
Instead, Columbus attacked without any sense of urgency, but the hosts were handed a lifeline by Jose Goncalves, who clearly handled a cross inside the box. Fischer didn't spot the foul, but his assistant on the sidelines alerted him. Higuain converted the resulting spot kick with a Panenka, giving Crew some hope for the return next week.
Inside MLS wonders whether the late goal could turn out to make the difference:
Columbus will have to score at least three goals to qualify for the Conference final, as the MLS decided to adopt the European system of using away goals as a tiebreaker for this year's playoffs at the start of this season.
New England fully deserved the win on Saturday, but Columbus' defensive effort was beyond subpar. Armed with the knowledge there is still a return game to be played, it's hard to believe how the team turned its back on stopper Clark and get carried away during the match.
Higuain's late goal means all isn't lost for Columbus, but down two goals and facing four away goals in total, the squad will need a miracle to qualify over New England next Sunday.