By Okon Ekpenyong
Columbus Crew 2, the #1 overall team in the playoff, representing the Eastern Conference, had to fight, maintain its composure, think outside the box, and perform unbelievable magic tricks in the extra time to advance 4-3 to the first Major League Soccer Next Pro cup.
Crew 2 won their first regular season match against Toronto FC 2, 2-1 on April 24 and the second game, 4-2 on May 22, but TFC 2 won the Penalty Kick match 4-3 on July 10. So, both teams came into the game with a chip on their shoulder.
Eastern Conference Final
The Crew 2 were minutes away from becoming the Eastern Conference Champions with a 2-1 lead, but oh no, Toronto FC 2 quickly proved at the end of regulation that they, too, had some magic scoring in the 92:55 mark. It was the type that you will see in a Las Vegas show. Haha, omg! It was a thriller.
The team cruised to a 4-1 victory over Rochester, NY FC, at historic Crew Stadium in the Eastern Conference Semifinal to set up the match versus Toronto FC 2. Meanwhile, St Louis City 2 cruised to an easy 2-0 win over North Texas SC to face off against Tacoma Defiance in the Western Conference Final. Many considered Tacoma the team to beat after ranking first most of the season and having a stellar defense.
“Throughout the playoffs, playing at home this postseason, we hope to see the city rally behind us for this historic season that we are having,” a crew two player told us.
Coleman Gannon hit the game-winner in the match’s final minute (119′), helping his team head to Saturday’s final. It wasn’t a shocker that the game ended the way that it did because both teams ranked one and two in the conference. So, it was a battle of who wanted it the most, and it showed.
“Jordan has an ability that you cannot teach. He needs to work on a few technical aspects of the game, but beyond that, he is a wonderful human being,” said Coach Courtois.
The attendance when they played in the semifinals, plus Sunday’s Eastern Conference match against Toronto FC 2, was the highest the team has had all season. Before the game between Columbus Crew 2 and Toronto FC 2, the question remained who will earn their spot in the inaugural MLS Next Pro Cup on October 8 finale to take on the Winner between St Louis CITY2 (1) vs. Tacoma Defiance (2) from the Western Conference.
A goal by #9 Noah Fuson in the 32 minutes had the Crew 2 up 1-0 in the first half, reassuring the city and the organization that this season will remain exceptional. In the 47 minutes, though, Toronto FC 2 tied the match one apiece when Paul Rothrock’s (TFC II) right-footed shot from outside the box to the bottom right corner allowed Toronto to get back into the game.
Minutes into extra time, Crew’s goalkeeper didn’t have a chance to save a hail Mary kick from TFC. The ball was coming from the midfield because he was several feet away from the goalpost, putting their team ahead 3-2 at the 93:20 mark. Crew’s player #19, Jordan Knight, even the score at three apiece around 108:27. Ten minutes into the second extra time, #11 Gannon finally helps the team edge TFC II in an Eastern Final Thriller.
“If you don’t have consistency, you will stay where you are, so it is vital to have everyone on the same page,” said Crew 2 Jordan Knight.
Western Conference Final
Their stellar defense has given their opponent troubles all season, and Tacoma was the latest to find out that last Sunday. In the Western Final, Saint Louis had the game on lock most of the match after T. Ostrak scored, giving the team their first goal around the 31-minute mark. J. Dolling would capitalize around the 59 minutes mark to make it a 2-0 lead, but Tacoma had a break in the 76 minutes when A. Cissoko kicked the penalty kick to cut the lead to one point.
However, Saint Louis, whose Pro-team will officially kick off its first-ever season in Major League Soccer, stepped up its defense once again and helped carry its MLS Next Pro team to the league first ever cup title match.
Like the legendary commentator and broadcaster Dick Vitale would say, it is the playoff, baby! Anything can happen. It is not how high you fly during the regular season but how far you can go during the postseason. One bad game, and you are out. So, to sum it all up, the evening was what the postseason should be about the highs and lows.
As a fan, I give high fives to both organizations for player development and implementing that winning culture into these young men. “We knew they had an outstanding core group, and I know they have a good youth program, so the team’s success does not surprise me,” another Crew 2 supporter said.
In the parking lot, several fans were outside tailgating before the game. “We tailgated yesterday and today as well. I am all about supporting MLS Next Pro because it helps develop good players. Junior programs players are going into the minor league, giving the younger generation a chance to play in the big league,” a father and supporter said.
At half-time, we caught up with supporters of Crew’s II and friends of defender Abdirizak Mohamed, “I love the team’s chemistry,” a group of five said.
The Crew 2 cleaned up Season awards
With a fantastic season under their belt, the team collected a few individual awards, including Next Pro Coach of the Year Laurent Courtois and Golden Boot winner Jacen Russell-Rowe for scoring the most goals (24) during the season. Goalkeeper of the Year was Patrick Schulte, and Mo Farsi and Isaiah Parente picked up the Best XI honorees.
MLS Next Pro Cup
Jacen Russell-Rowe is the go-to target for Crew 2, but who can step up if he is not in the game? His backup, Jordan Knight and Coleman Gannon were the difference-marker in Sunday’s win against Toronto FC. And so they will need bench players. Early substitution, home-field advantage, brilliant defense, and controlling emotions will be different markers for the Crew. Ultimately, goalkeeping play and avoiding critical mistakes will determine who will be the last man standing on Saturday’s finale.
Crew 2 and Saint Louis City 2, the Western Conference Champions, will face off on October 8 at the Lower.com field in Columbus, OH, in what could be a nail-biter final.
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