“We held our ground and we're going through,” Crew SC midfielder Justin Meram said.
Columbus is not only playing in MLS Cup for the first time since 2008, the Black & Gold get a shot at their second championship in front of their home crowd at MAPFRE Stadium. With a hard-fought 2-1 aggregate win over the No. 1 seeded New York Red Bulls, Crew SC was crowned the Eastern Conference Champion Sunday night.
“We had to keep our composure and just be focused, because we wanted this, we wanted this celebration,” striker Kei Kamara said. “That's what we wanted more than anything else.”
The MLS MVP candidate leads his club in the Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs with three goals, adding to his 22 regular-season tallies. He took four of Crew SC’s nine shots against the Red Bulls in an otherwise predominantly defensive match on Sunday night.
Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter said it wasn’t the typical performance you’d expect from this group, but it got the job done.
“We played well,” he said. “We didn't give them many good looks, many good opportunities. [It was a] great defensive effort, and what I was missing was the finishing touch on the goal […] But by and large we controlled the game well.”
Aside from two dramatic minutes in added time, when Anatole Abang scored in the 93rd minute and Bradley Wright-Phillips hit the post for the Red Bulls in the 95th, Crew SC’s backline was solid. The Black & Gold managed 41 clearances off New York’s high-press and its attempts to throw numbers forward.
Meram commended his team’s flexibility to adjust to the Red Bulls' playing style and seal the series win.
“It helps us because we can switch from one identity to the next, you know,” he said. “We're going to keep it on the ground and when we need to go long to Kei we'll go long, and so we're excited. Can't wait to be home with our fans.”
Meram's sentiments are echoed by his coach and teammates, as they continue to look ahead at the ultimate goal.
“I'm proud of my team, I'm proud of the way the guys managed this game, but we're not finished,” Berhalter said.
In a locker room full of smiles and pride, focus on the task ahead was evident. In a 10-month-long season of taking it one match at time, this Sunday is the only match that matters to Crew SC now.
“You know, we took care of business, what we needed to do here, but you know the ultimate goal is not there yet,” Meram said. “So there's no reason to celebrate. We're going to stay humble through this win and next week is when everything you've played for, everything you've trained for, every game leading up to it - this is when it counts. Eastern Conference Championship - yeah it's good, but MLS Cup is when, as you said, the champagne will be out.”