In a dramatic and controversial match that needed an extra time for a winner, Columbus Crew SC beat the Montreal Impact 3-1 in MAPFRE Stadium to clinch a berth in the Eastern Conference Championship.
Montreal entered the match with a 2-1 lead after winning the first leg at home. To keep their season alive, Crew SC forced extra time with an Ethan Finlay equalizer in the 78th minute, and Kei Kamara sealed the team’s fate with a 111th minute winner.
Columbus advances in the Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs to play the New York Red Bulls for the chance to go to the MLS Cup.
After a relatively muted performance by the Crew SC attack in Montreal last week, Gregg Berhalter's side came in with a different attitude on Sunday.
From the opening kickoff, Columbus looked like a different team. Fullbacks Harrison Afful and Waylon Francis were significantly more engaged than they were last week, the hallmark of Gregg Berhalter and Crew SC’s attacking style.
That approach paid off immediately as Kamara wasted no time in ending his three-game scoring drought.
Federico Higuain sprang Francis free on the left side with a gorgeous, looping pass in the 4th minute, and the Costa Rican played a perfect cross to the head of Kamara, who turned it into the goal from point-blank range.
Kamara nearly put his team up 2-0 in the 12th minute, when he redirected an Afful cross onto the bar. Justin Meram and Finlay would both have similar dangerous opportunities, but Crew SC simply couldn’t convert, and Columbus’s advantage would fade as the half wore on.
After about 30 minutes of Crew SC dominance, the Impact began settling in the game. Ignacio Piatti kickstarted the offense with a couple of long-range shots, while Montreal looked toward similar efforts from distance and long balls to Didier Drogba to fight back.
The mounting Montreal pressure finally broke the Columbus backline in the 40th minute, but not without some controversy.
After a corner kick, Laurent Ciman put a ball back into the Columbus box that bounced around before arriving on the foot of Dilly Duka, who appeared to be in an offside position. No call was made and the game was level at 1-1.
After a slow start to the second half, Columbus got their chance in the 67th minute with yet another dose of controversy.
Chasing a loose ball, Finlay beat Ciman to a spot on the edge of the Montreal penalty area and tried to shield the Belgian from running toward the ball. The larger Ciman went through Finlay, who seemed to have impeded the defender’s path, and referee Armando Villareal immediately whistled for a penalty kick.
For the first time in 2015, MLS’s co-leading goalscorer stepped to the penalty spot. But with a relatively weak attempt, Kamara’s shot was saved by a diving Evan Bush to preserve the draw.
With MAPFRE Stadium roaring, Finlay would equalize for Crew SC, and yet again players and fans were asking questions of Villareal.
Substitute Cedrick Mabwati crossed a ball in from the left side of the Crew SC attack that deflected to another substitute, Jack McInerney. McInerney took a shot that was parried by Bush, but the rebound fell to a streaking Finlay, who scored on the open net to draw Columbus level on aggregate goals in the 78th minute.
As time wound down, Columbus put themselves in dangerous positions by giving away a series of set pieces to Montreal and Drogba. But last-ditch defending and solid goalkeeping from Steve Clark preserved the score, forcing extra time.
In the first half of extra time, Crew SC continued their habit of creating without results. Playing with their save-the-season lineup filled with attackers, they continued to throw men forward, but could not break through.
But in the second half of extra time, Columbus found their breakthrough.
In the 111th minute, Finlay found Mabwati on the left side. The Congolese winger swung a perfect ball to the far post, where Kamara was waiting to leap over a defender and place a perfect header into the far corner to give Columbus a 4-3 aggregate win in the series.
Crew SC will host the Red Bulls on November 22 for the first leg of their Conference Championship series while the Impact will head home after their most successful season in MLS.