On several occasions Tuesday night, the crowd at Mapfre Stadium chanted "Save the Crew." But by the end of the night, a more immediate question emerged: Can New York City FC be saved?
The Columbus Crew rewarded the raucous crowd that came out to cheer them on — and to protest the rumored move of the team to Austin, Texas — by putting on a clinic against a 10-man NYCFC team that was ultimately punished for wasted chances early, and a poorly-placed elbow that earned Alexander Callens a red card and helped doom NYCFC to a 4-1 beatdown it is unlikely to recover from.
Gregg Berhalter's squad showed no signs of fatigue after last week's grueling penalty shootout win against Atlanta United in the knockout round. If anything, the Crew attack showed more energy, pinning NYCFC on its heels from the start, and breaking through with a sixth-minute Ola Kamara goal that set the tone for the night.
Both teams wasted golden scoring opportunities soon after, but it will be NYCFC that comes away thinking about the chances missed in the first half. Whether it was David Villa's blast off the post or Rodney Wallace's shot just wide, NYCFC had its chances to seize control of the match, only to see them vanish in the second half.
We'll never know how the match might have played out if Callens hadn't decided to raise his elbow and run at Justin Meram, making contact with Meram's face and leaving a damning replay for referee Ismael Elfath to review. It's hard to argue intent when Callens clearly saw Meram before he raised his elbow, and the slow-motion replay only made it look even worse.
NYCFC looked wholly incapable of defending with 10 men, and the Crew needed just six minutes to extend their lead when the normally reliable Alexander Ring committed a costly turnover that sparked a Crew breakout leading to an Artur goal in the 58th minute.
By the time Sean Johnson let a Meram shot slip under him 10 minutes later, the rout was on and even the normally stoic Berhalter let loose, running to the corner flag to celebrate with his team.
Villa looked like he might be the one to save NYCFC when he pounced on a Jonathan Mensah blunder in the 78th minute to make the score 3-1 and give the visitors some hope, but that joy was short-lived. Crew fullback Harrison Afful danced through the NYCFC defense for a stoppage-time dagger that led manager Patrick Vieira to kick a water bottle in frustration.
It had to feel all too familiar for Vieira, who might have felt some hints of deja vu on Tuesday, remembering how his team was demolished in the conference semifinals a year ago by Toronto FC. Even that series didn't start out as badly as the current one, though. NYCFC left Toronto FC after a 2-0 first-leg loss, and returned home hopeful of a turnaround before TFC put a 5-0 beating on the New Yorkers.
Now, NYCFC finds itself trailing by three goals heading back to Yankee Stadium, but things are even worse than the 4-1 scoreline indicates. Callens' ill-advised elbow to Meram's face not only doomed NYCFC to playing a man down for 38 minutes, but also means NYCFC will play the second leg without its two best central defenders unless Maxime Chanot can finally return from the pelvic injury that has sidelined him for the past two months.
Without Callens and Chanot, the NYCFC defense will be hard-pressed to shut out a team that has scored six goals in its two most recent meetings with NYCFC. David Villa and the NYCFC attack will likely need to have their best performance in months to have any chance to advance.
As for the Crew, they have successfully buried any notion that the rumored move to Texas would distract the team at the worst possible time. Berhalter has succeeded in keeping his team focused, and it doesn't hurt that the Crew are in the midst of a 7-0-5 run that has them looking capable of beating anyone.
Now, a team of players Berhalter has called overlooked and underrated is on the hottest run in the league, and suddenly look like a team that could pose a very real threat to seemingly unstoppable Toronto FC.
The Crew still have to go to Yankee Stadium on Sunday and close out a series that feels all but decided, but Tuesday's romp, coupled with their gutsy win over Atlanta United, has the Crew looking less like a team that needs saving, and more like a team of destiny.