In the end, the fate of the Eastern Conference hinged on a matter of inches in the final seconds. Bradley Wright-Phillips did everything right with the New York Red Bulls pressing for a second goal to take Columbus Crew SC into extra time. He went up. He won the ball. He watched it trickle toward the goal. And then he reacted in shock as his potential series equalizer hit the post to send Crew SC through to host Portland in MLS Cup next Sunday with a 2-1 aggregate victory.
Red Bulls substitute Anatole Abang threw his side an unexpected lifeline deep in second-half stoppage time, but it only stood as the decisive goal in a hollow 1-0 victory in the end.
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Columbus deserved to survive on the balance of these two legs and the balance of this night on the whole. Crew SC forced Luis Robles into three fine saves before halftime, but the visitors left the door open by failing to secure the critical away goal necessary to confirm the Red Bulls’ fate.
New York eventually mustered a belated reply, but it proved too little, too late. The outcome sent Crew SC through to MLS Cup for the first time since 2008 and left the Red Bulls to rue their luck at the end.
Crew SC essentially ceded possession to the Red Bulls at the outset and looked for opportunities to break quickly through midfield instead. The approach yielded dividends in the first leg against the revamped Red Bulls back four. It worked once again here as the Red Bulls faltered in their attempts to find the proper spacing and supply the necessary cover when Kemar Lawrence ventured forward on the left.
Robles bailed his teammates time and time again as they buckled under direct examination. The one-man show included a necessary block on Ethan Finlay inside the opening two minutes and a kick save on Kei Kamara at the near post moments later as Crew SC exploited the space at will.
New York spent better part of a half-hour trying to stop Crew SC from pushing forward at will, but the adjustments failed to produce much thrust going forward. Bradley Wright-Phillips cut an isolated figure up front, while wingers Mike Grella and Lloyd Sam exerted little impact. Most of the moves ended with little threat to Crew SC and left them vulnerable to the break.
Robles produced yet another save seven minutes before the break as Columbus sought the killer away goal. The interval provided Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch and his players with a chance to regroup. They conjured a modest improvement after the break without disrupting the decidedly unfavorable balance of the proceedings.
Marsch introduced Gonzalo Veron on the hour in a bid to spark his side to life. New York hustled and bustled, but the Red Bulls found themselves hindered by a lack of quality in the attacking half and the defiant Crew SC shape until the final 20 minutes.
For the first time, the Red Bulls mustered sustained periods of pressure with substitute Anatole Abang inserted to offer an aerial presence. Wright-Phillips flicked a header over the bar, while Veron fizzed a cross through the penalty area as the Red Bulls tried to gain a reasonable foothold.
Abang provided it in the dying embers of the game, but it merely set the stage for heartbreak when Wright-Phillips hit the post in the final moments. Crew SC survived another frenetic finish to cinch a date with the Timbers next weekend.