Columbus Crew
Columbus Crew celebrate after beating the New York Red Bulls in the MLS Eastern Conference Championship. Reuters

HARRISON, NJ -- It has been a season of dramatic and uplifting change at the New York Red Bull, but the essential, most painful of facts remains the same. After now 20 seasons of existence, the Red Bulls are still without an MLS Cup title. On Sunday, Columbus Crew, the team that defeated the Red Bulls in its only previous appearance in MLS Cup, completed a 2-1 aggregate win at Red Bull Arena to march onto its second appearance in Major League Soccer’s showpiece occasion, where it will host the Portland Timbers next Sunday.

To add to the heartbreak for the Red Bulls, the width of the post was all that separated it from taking the series to extra time. An injury-time goal from Anatole Abang gave New York some much-needed hope and ensured a dramatic finish. But as the Red Bulls pushed desperately for a tying goal in the dying seconds, Bradley Wright-Phillips saw his header come back off the post before being scrambled off the line by the Crew’s Kei Kamara. Yet, an extra 30 minutes would have been harsh on a Columbus team that fully deserved its victory over the two legs of the Eastern Conference final.

“I’m proud of my team, I’m proud of the way the guys managed this game,” Columbus coach Gregg Berhalter said afterward. “But we’re not finished. We have our sights set on next week. The guys will enjoy tonight and then we’ll get back to work.

“What I’m most proud of is that we get to bring the MLS final to Columbus. The fans have been behind us all year, you see the excitement that was building in these playoff matches, and now for us to be able to play the final in Columbus is special.”

Leading 2-0 from the first leg in Ohio a week ago, for 90 minutes Columbus again shut down a Red Bulls team that had been the top scorers in the MLS regular season. A sold-out crowd at Red Bull Arena was in fervent mood before kickoff and for much of the encounter, but its team, which also failed to sparkle in edging past DC United in the Conference semifinals, struggled to deliver on the pitch. And by the time the Red Bulls finally provided them with something to cheer, much of the 25,000-plus crowd had already headed for the exits.

Landing the Supporters Shield--for the second time in three years--represents a huge achievement for head coach Jesse Marsch and sporting director Ali Curtis, who arrived amid significant supporter unrest a year ago. But the star-less, high-pressing style that flourished in the regular season was nullified by a shrewd Columbus side to leave the Red Bulls falling one game short of the MLS Cup final for the second-straight year.

“In every way this has been a magical season, and it was an inch from having a real chance to have something even more special,” Marsch said. “If we can make this kind of progress year in and year out, we’ll create something that can be really special.”

Once the pain of defeat fades, Marsch and co. can draw encouragement from their opponents. Beaten in the Conference semifinals in the first year of Berhalter’s transformation of Columbus from also-ran to contenders a year ago, the team has now made an improbable run through to the final. And there it will get to host a Portland Timbers side that beat FC Dallas in the Western Conference Championship. Both teams will fancy their chances in a final few will have foreseen at the outset of the playoffs.

If Columbus can repeat its performance over both legs in the final, it certainly has every chance of walking away with the trophy. For the second-straight game, Berhalter’s side had the number of its opponents. The attractive, high-octane attacking style that took the Red Bulls to the league’s best record in the regular season was left looking predictable and ponderous until it was ultimately too late.

Sitting back, staying compact and not hesitating to get physical, Columbus was tremendously disciplined throughout, following Berhalter’s specially-scripted game plan to near-perfection. The quality of Columbus’ defensive play was epitomized by its two full-backs, Harrison Afful and Waylon Francis, who rendered Lloyd Sam and Mike Grella, such a vital part of the Red Bulls attacking arsenal, completely ineffective. In midfield, too, which had been the heartbeat of the Red Bulls’ unexpected march to the Supporters Shield, New York could find no rhythm against their tenacious opponents.

“We identified their strengths and we wanted to turn that against them,” Berhalter added. “The way they play, it works perfectly. They create chances off of their pressure, and we wanted to eliminate that. And I think we did a good job.”

But it was far more than merely a backs-against-the-wall performance from the visitors. Hitting the Red Bulls, with quick, often direct counter attacks, it was Columbus that looked the team more likely to break the deadlock. Last week the Crew had stunned Marsch’s side with a goal inside nine seconds. In the second leg they almost produced a similar fast start. An alert save from Luis Robles prevented Ethan Finlay from getting a goal inside two minutes that would have left the hosts needing four to progress, courtesy of the away-goals rule.

Robles was the busier of the two goalkeepers for the majority of the encounter, and twice the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year pulled off fine saves to deny Kamara. A switch of the Red Bulls’ wingers brought some joy with 15 minutes remaining, but Sam failed to convert having made space for a shot when cutting inside the box on his right foot.

Had that gone in, perhaps the Red Bulls would have had time to get a second. Instead it took until two minutes into injury time for Columbus’ resistance to be breached. A penalty-box scramble ended with substitute Abang heading past stranded Steve Clark in the Columbus goal. For the first time in 180 minutes, the Red Bulls had its opponents panicked. The width of the post, though, meant the Red Bulls’ wait for glory goes on.