Sean Nealis scores late winner for Red Bulls to beat Columbus Crew, all but officially ending their playoff hopes
That just might be it for the Crew’s playoff hopes.
Deadlocked at 1-1 for almost 70 minutes, New York Red Bulls defender Sean Nealis scored in the 87th minute to beat the Crew 2-1 on Saturday night at Lower.com Field.
The Red Bulls thoroughly dominated the second half while the Crew had just two shots in the entire half. The Crew defense had struggled most of the night dealing with crosses into their own penalty area and couldn’t control the ball enough to take momentum away from the Red Bulls.
But the Red Bulls put pressure on the Crew from the start and exposed a mentality that has plagued the team for much of the season.
"We just came out, again, not ready," assistant coach Ezra Hendrickson said.
On the winning goal, an initial cross came in from the left side of the Crew’s defense. Forward Patryk Klimala hit the ball out of the air back across goal where Nealis finished the chance from about 6 yards out.
Entering the game in 10th place, two points behind the Red Bulls and three points off the final playoff spot, the Crew had some optimism with four straight wins at home and coming off a draw against Nashville SC on the road on Wednesday. With four games remaining, the Crew needed to win their three home games and get at least a draw at D.C. United.
With a loss against the Red Bulls, the Crew aren’t mathematically eliminated from the playoff race, but it would take an absolute miracle for the defending MLS Cup champions to be among the top seven teams in the East in the postseason.
"We didn't do enough to win this game," center back and captain Jonathan Mensah said. "We cannot go back. Now we need to be hard on ourselves because four games left you cannot give up goals in games like this."
At the final whistle, Crew players stood on the field emotionally distraught, realizing the significance of the loss.
Unlike recent home games, the Crew added pressure on themselves with a disastrous start. The Red Bulls began the match strong, peppering the Crew’s back-line defenders with crosses into the box until breaking through in the seventh minute.
Midfielder Cristian Casseres beat his defender right in front of goal and score a header off a corner kick from midfielder Sean Davis to give the Red Bulls an early lead that stunned the 17,891 at Lower.com Field.
Once the Crew got the ball out of their own half after a rough first 10 minutes, they found a lot of space in the attack through the right side, which led to the tying goal in the 19th minute.
Winger Derrick Etienne Jr passed from the left sideline to the middle of the field about 30 yards from goal to attacking midfielder Lucas Zelarayan, who found Moreira making a run in from the right side into the box. Moreira hit a one-time cross to the top-center of the 6-yard box where forward Miguel Berry finished the equalizer.
The Crew looked lively throughout the rest of the first half, having two late scoring chances denied. But the second half performance was a complete letdown.
"We started to keep the ball a little bit too long, then it was a turnover and that's what they play for," Hendrickson said. "They come with that amoeba defense and just swarm you, then they're off to the races. I think that eventually caught up to us."
The Red Bulls had their chance to help their own playoff hopes and sink those of the Crew early in the second half. Right back Steven Moreira knocked over midfielder Wikelman Carmona in the box, giving the Red Bulls a penalty kick in the 51st minute with the game tied at one.
Crew goalkeeper Eloy Room dove to his left as forward Patryk Klimala shot it to Room’s right, but the shot rolled wide of the post, allowing the Crew to escape a dire situation in which they would’ve had to score twice in about 40 minutes to get a win that was desperately needed.
In the end, it didn’t matter as Nealis likely ended the Crew’s season.