Harrison Afful’s brilliant finish caps 4-1 first-leg victory for Crew SC

A red card early in the second half Tuesday night changed the course of precedings, and the Black and Gold took full advantage.

New York City FC center back Alex Callens was sent off in the 51st minute for an elbow to the face of Justin Meram and Crew SC piled on three goals to follow, locking down a 4-1 victory in the first leg of the MLS Eastern Conference semifinals.

Sean Johnson had a night to forget to forget as well between the sticks for the visitors, but right back Harrison Afful put a bow on the night with a spectacular goal in second-half stoppage time that the U.S. international had no hope of denying to restore a critical three-goal lead heading into Yankee Stadium. 

Federico Higuain fed Afful just outside the 18-yard box before the Ghanian eluded two defenders as he put the ball onto his left foot and strided forward, then drew in another and prompted a slide tackle with a fake before eventually finishing to Johnson’s right from eight yards out. 

Ola Kamara had an announced crowd of 14,416 on its feet after putting Crew SC on top in the sixth minute, but the red card shifted the balance of the tie after NYC FC looked poised to find an equalizer as the first half wore on. 

“We [took] out one of our center backs and had to readjust,” NYC FC defender Ben Sweat said during a post-match interview. “We couldn’t press as much as we wanted to, so it was very frustrating.”

Instead, Columbus midfielder Artur shuffled onto his right foot and caught Johnson off-balance to capitalize on the man advantage in the 58th minute.

Short a defender and out of shape, Kamara took advantage and found a darting Justin Meram to his right with a ball forward, and his right-footed shot bounced just below Johnson’s hands and past the ‘keeper for the Crew’s third goal of the night in the 69th minute.

The league’s second-best team didn’t go down without a fight, though. In the 78th minute, Jonathan Mensah lost his balance and 2016 MLS MVP David Villa took advantage with a volley to capitalize on a precise counterattack to make it 3-1. It was one that drew the ire of Columbus fans considering the build-up started from what could have been ruled an intentional backpass from an NYC FC defender to Johnson.

Mensah did atone with a nice clearance to deny Villa’s service across the face of goal to a teammate several minutes later. 

Compared to the 2-2 draw the two teams played to in the final match of the regular season in which NYC FC had just one less shot on target than off, Patrick Vieira’s team put just three of its 11 attempts on-frame Tuesday night. That included a shot by Villa that banged off the right goal post late in the opening half. 

Crew SC coach Gregg Berhalter indicated that the team has no intentions to shell up in the second leg on Sunday (5 p.m. ET, ESPN). 

“We need to continue to be focused, continue to be dedicated to recovery and go into New York [City FC] with a purpose and that purpose is to score a goal,” Berhalter said. “We still want to be aggressive and we have a lot of respect for the opponent.”

Columbus will look to extend its 12-match unbeaten run at Yankee Stadium and advance to the conference finals for the seventh time in club history with an aggregate victory. In the other Eastern Conference semifinal, goals by Victor Vazquez and Giovinco gave Toronto FC a 2-1 first-leg away win against the New York Red Bulls.