NYCFC Comes Up a Goal Short

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cup logoTHE BRONX — New York City FC did everything right, except score three times.

City defeated the Columbus Crew, 2-0, in Sunday evening’s Eastern Conference semifinal second leg, but lost, 4-3 on aggregate. David Villa scored a 16th minute penalty and Jonathan Mensah conceded a second-half own goal. NYCFC struck the post twice and held the Crew to one shot on target, a perfectly executed comeback that came inches short.

“We gave ourselves the best chance to make it up,” NYCFC Coach Patrick Vieira said. “We knew how difficult the challenge was and today we tried. We played really well, we created chances but there were situations where we didn’t make the best decisions. We scored the two goals and I thought the third one would come.”

City put Columbus under pressure immediately from kickoff and was effective in creating chances from possession and through defensive pressure. Rodney Wallace won a penalty 14 minutes in by forcing Josh Williams into a misplay before Williams hauled him down inside the box. Villa converted sending Zac Steffen the wrong way. A Sean Johnson giveaway led to Columbus’ only shot on target but Johnson made a diving save on Justin Meram‘s curled shot. Though Johnson stopped Meram in the second leg, he rued allowing his goal in the first leg.

“It wasn’t a great game by myself,” Johnson said. “I took that responsibility and I can’t look at anybody else before I look at myself and say what could I have done to make the team better and put the team in a better position. Looking at that, that’s a question I can answer and say the second leg of the series was exciting, we created many chances but it has to be better in the first leg. I fully shouldered that, I talked to the guys about it but we’ll be better next year and I guarantee that this won’t happen again.”

The Pigeons had the lion’s share of the possession for the entire game and started the second half putting Columbus under pressure again. Villa forced a save from Steffen at the near post and almost scored off of a well-worked pick play seconds later. The second goal would come seven minutes into the half as Andraz Struna‘s shot deflected off Mensah and into the net.

City kept pinning the Crew within their own end after the goal so much so that the third seemed inevitable yet the finer margins of knockout soccer denied them. Wallace nearly pulled off a two-touch sombrero into a half-volleyed finish but hit the near post. Maxi Moralez struck the post in the first half as well. Jack Harrison made an electrifying 40-yard sprint on goal but he could not place his shot beyond Steffen.

David Villa and Jonathan Mensah during Sunday's return leg at Yankee Stadium.

David Villa and Jonathan Mensah during Sunday’s return leg at Yankee Stadium.

“The chances were there and Columbus knows it themselves that they were lucky,” Alex Ring said. “We messed up in the first leg.”

Vieira threw on Jonathan Lewis, Andrea Pirlo and Ugo Okoli in the final moments but they could not make the difference. For Pirlo, the five-minute cameo will be his final appearance in professional soccer. Vieira said if young players and academy youngsters at NYCFC mimic Pirlo’s conduct and professionalism then they will have long and successful careers as he did. Lewis and Okoli will wait and see if they are part of a roster that Vieira vowed to augment in the coming off-season.

“I strongly believe that next year is going to be even better,” Vieira said. “We are working well, we are improving on the field. We managed to bring the right players who made us improve. We had 12 new players this year and next year we’ll have less but the few players that we need to bring in have to take us to a higher level so we can compete against Toronto and the Red Bulls. I strongly believe that the East will be stronger and stronger.”

Vieira said the team, the club and the brand are more stable and solid after this year. More will be said about that as the sting of Sunday night fades. Though 2017 ends as 2016 ends, a loss in the conference semifinal punctuated at Yankee Stadium. The workers, only hours after the final whistle, removing all that made the baseball stadium a soccer stadium. The aisles swept, nets taken down and video boards carted into the bowels of the billion-dollar structure. And outside, the City goes on.