A red card early in the second half — accompanied by wasteful finishing in the first half — doomed New York City FC in the first leg of the MLS Eastern Conference semifinals Tuesday night.
The game got off to a sparkling — if sloppy — start when Columbus Crew SC forward Ola Kamara pounced on a spilled rebound from an uncharacteristically mistake-prone Sean Johnson. The game was wide open throughout the first half though, and New York City had plenty of chances to level the score.
The closest the Pigeons came to doing so was in the 37th minute, when David Villa hammered a shot off the right goalpost. Villa picked up the ball in midfield, then rocketed past a diving Crew defender to find himself in a two-on-one situation. The legendary Spanish forward had plenty of time on the ball and more than a little space from the defense, but he could only push his shot to the right and off the post.
The game — somehow — went to halftime with Columbus leading 1-0, and New York City fans were left ruing all of the missed opportunities. But it would soon get worse for the Pigeons.
In the 52nd minute, left center-back Alexander Callens received a straight red card for elbowing Columbus’ Justin Meram in the face. The expulsion came after the use of video review on the play. That passage of play changed the entire game, and likely the semifinal.
Start with the fact that Callens played every minute of every game for New York City during the regular season. Midfielder Alexander Ring gets a lot of justified praise from folks for changing the dynamic in midfield, but Callens single-handedly steadied a Pigeons defense that was shaky at best, and did it without missing a game. Now, he’ll be missing for the biggest game of the year.
Beyond that though, it meant that with a man down and trailing 1-0, New York City would be coming under pressure from a Columbus team eager to ice the semifinal at home. Surely, manager Patrick Vieira would close up shop and try to keep things manageable.
Wrong. New York City continued to chase the game, which meant that Columbus had plenty of space in which to launch their counterattacks. The Crew took deadly advantage of that over and over again. By the time that David Villa scored New York City’s first-ever playoff goal in the 78th minute, Columbus was up 3-0.
That goal briefly made things interesting. At 3-1, all that New York City would need at home on Sunday would be a 2-0 shutout. Tough, but doable.
But a dancing, weaving goal by the Crew’s Harrison Afful made that moot. Afful scored his first goal of the year to make the score 4-1. He left five — FIVE — defenders scrambling within six yards of goal as he all but buried New York City’s season.
What’s next? New York City will play Columbus at Yankee Stadium on Sunday, November 5, at a time yet to be determined. The Pigeons face a daunting task: They need a 3-0 win against a team that hasn’t lost since August 5 and they’ll be missing Callens at center-back. In his postgame remarks, Vieira said that either Ethan White or Ben Sweat will play center-back in Callens’ absence.
Nevertheless, the numbers make for grim reading: In three playoff games, New York City has lost all three, scored just once, and surrendered 11 goals. These are not numbers that make one sanguine about the prospects of a turnaround in less than a week. We can talk about red cards and we can talk about missed scoring chances, but at some point, we need to talk about whether Patrick Vieira is setting up this team to succeed or fail in the postseason.