Columbus Sets Tone in MLS Eastern Conference Championship with Strong Showing

Joe Tansey@JTansey90Featured ColumnistNovember 23, 2015

Columbus Crew Justin Meram, left, celebrates with Kei Kamara after Meram scored a goal during the first half of an MLS soccer match against the New York Red Bulls, Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015, in Harrison, N.J. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)
Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

The start was ideal. The performance that followed was fantastic. And the 2-0 result after 90 minutes was a perfect start to the Eastern Conference Championship for the Columbus Crew. 

Thanks to their stellar all-around showing in front of the home fans at Mapfre Stadium, the Crew left the Eastern Conference Championship first leg with a two-goal advantage over the New York Red Bulls heading into next Sunday's second leg at Red Bull Arena.

Columbus shocked the Supporters' Shield winners with a goal nine seconds into the match. Off the opening kickoff, a long ball was played onto the head of Kei Kamara, who headed the ball down to Ethan Finlay. Finlay dished an assist over to Justin Meram and the Iraq international finished off the fastest goal in MLS postseason history. 

Major League Soccer @MLS

The fastest goal in Audi #MLSCupPlayoffs history, courtesy of @JustinMeram. #CLBvNY https://t.co/02kalU1VtV

Meram's early tally mesmerized everyone, as no one expected the reliable Red Bulls back line to break down on the first attack of the match. From that point on, the tone of the match was set. Columbus threatened on countless occasions before Kamara's 85th-minute goal handed Columbus a critical two-goal advantage. 

Not only did the Columbus attack thrive throughout the majority of the match, its defense also shut down the Red Bulls wingers and took Bradley Wright-Phillips out of the game. Wright-Phillips' contribution was limited to two off-target shots in the defeat that saw Lloyd Sam and Mike Grella rarely make an impact from the flanks.

The Crew's thorough defensive showing came without the suspended Gaston Sauro, who was a rock next to Michael Parkhurst for the second half of the season. Parkhurst and Tyson Wahl showed few deficiencies at center back, while Waylon Francis and Harrison Afful kept the ball out of the dangerous areas on the wings. 

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The standout showing from the Columbus back four produced the first clean sheet against the Red Bulls since May 24, and it handed the Crew their first shutout of the postseason. 

Frank Giase @FrankGiase

Red Bulls haven't been shut out since May 24 vs. the Union. #CLBvNY

Columbus was also able to find vulnerabilities in the Red Bulls midfield, which has earned plenty of praise for its pressing demeanor for most of 2015. Dax McCarty and Sacha Kljestan looked mortal at best, and although Felipe produced a decent 90 minutes, he still looked a little disjointed without McCarty and Kljestan firing on all cylinders. 

In the final third, the quartet of Columbus attackers in the starting lineup found plenty of space by breaking down the usually organized Red Bulls back line. Although the Crew did not capitalize on a few key opportunities, they were able to leave an imprint in the minds of the Red Bulls defenders that there are plenty of holes waiting to be exploited. 

Luckily for the Crew, they did not waste all of their chances, and Kamara finished off a critical second goal with five minutes left in the match. Substitute Cedrick Mabwati made the Red Bulls defense look like traffic cones before his shot was saved by Luis Robles. But Robles' save deflected behind him, and Kamara was left unmarked to tap in the goal. 

Nov 22, 2015; Columbus, OH, USA; Columbus Crew forward Kei Kamara (23) reacts to scoring a goal against the New York Red Bulls in the second half of leg one of the Eastern Conference championship at Mapfre Stadium. The Crew won 2-0. Mandatory Credit: Aaro
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Now the task ahead for the Crew is to replicate the first-leg performance in a week's time at Red Bull Arena. The Red Bulls will certainly make adjustments to their tactics, and the home crowd will provide them another advantage. 

One thing the Crew must improve on is their finishing. Despite putting two shots into the back of the net, Columbus missed a few chances to extend their lead further in the first leg.

Meram's curling effort in the 43rd minute was batted away by Robles, and Afful's shot in the 49th minute from open space flew off to the left of the goal. On the road, the Crew might not receive as many scoring chances, which means they can't afford to waste any opportunities. 

Columbus also needs more production in the air out of Kamara, who didn't involve himself in many aerial battles with the Red Bulls center backs outside of his header to Finlay to set up the first goal.

Kamara failed to get either of the Red Bulls center backs suspended with a yellow card due to his lack of aggressiveness in the air for 90 minutes. That means Matt Miazga and Ronald Zubar will get another chance to mold their partnership to perfection and shut down Kamara in the second leg. 

Federico Higuain was also a little too selfish for Columbus' liking in attack on a few moves forward. Had the Argentine playmaker dished the ball out to the wings quicker, the Crew may have found more space. But despite the little flaws in their game, the Crew still left the first leg with a victory and a clean sheet. 

The Crew played the first leg to near perfection, but in order to advance to MLS Cup on Dec. 6, they must fix the little mistakes and find a way to keep the Red Bulls quiet for another 90 minutes. 

Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90.

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