Columbus will next face Toronto F.C., the best team in M.L.S. this regular season, in the Eastern Conference finals. Toronto advanced despite a 1-0 loss to the visiting Red Bulls on Sunday, an ugly match that included red cards handed out to Jozy Altidore of Toronto and Sacha Kljestan of the Red Bulls for a halftime melee in the stadium’s tunnel.
Toronto advanced by virtue of having more away goals, having won, 2-1, in the first leg at Red Bull Arena. But the club will be without two of its best players, Altidore and striker Sebastian Giovinco, for its first game against Columbus, as Giovinco received his second yellow card of the playoffs in the 80th minute on Sunday.
That is good news for the Crew, who weathered plenty of attacks on Sunday. N.Y.C.F.C. opened the game on the front foot, dominating possession and putting the Crew back line under continual pressure. N.Y.C.F.C. was rewarded for its effort in the 15th minute, when Crew defender Josh Williams gave up the ball to Rodney Wallace in his own 18-yard area and then took out Wallace’s legs, giving up a penalty kick that David Villa converted.
The second half started much like the first, but this time the goal came even earlier. Eight minutes after the restart, Andraz Struna cut inside and unleashed a left-footed shot from the edge of the box. Crew defender Jonathan Mensah stuck his head in the way, deflecting the ball in the opposite direction of a diving Zack Steffen, Columbus’s goalkeeper.
It was deemed a Struna goal.
For a fast and furious 10 minutes, it seemed all but certain that N.Y.C.F.C. would score the crucial third goal. Wallace, Maximiliano Moralez and Jack Harrison all had fine chances, and in the 70th minute Wallace put the ball off the post after a bit of fancy footwork.
But Columbus settled the game down, and not even the introduction of Andrea Pirlo in the 90th minute in his final game for N.Y.C.F.C. — last month Pirlo announced he would retire after the season — spurred any change for the home team.
After the game, N.Y.C.F.C. was left to rue the red card, to Alexander Callens, and individual mistakes that led to the loss in the first leg, putting them deep into a hole.
“The second half in general was probably one of our worst halves as a team, collectively, of the year,” goalkeeper Sean Johnson said of the first leg. “To bounce back today the way we did was nothing short of incredible from everyone in this group.”
Midfielder Alex Ring added: “Columbus knows it themselves, they were very lucky today. We messed up in the first leg.”
It was the second straight season that N.Y.C.F.C. was eliminated in the conference semifinals, but the team figures to have a good chance at another playoff run next year if it stays largely intact. Several of its young players, including Ronald Matarrita, Yangel Herrera and Harrison, have drawn European interest.
In the West, the Houston Dynamo advanced to the conference finals, where they will face the Seattle Sounders, after a 2-1 win on the road against the Portland Timbers. Houston and Portland had played to a scoreless draw in the first leg of the conference semifinals.