NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — A year ago, New York City FC made a quantum leap from expansion nobody to Eastern Conference somebody.
But the club’s playoff run was short lived and ended with embarrassment.
NYCFC hopes to follow a different script this time around and make the most of its latest opportunity in the postseason when it takes on the Columbus Crew in the first leg of the conference semifinals on Tuesday at 8 p.m. at MAPFRE Stadium.
The second leg will be played Sunday at Yankee Stadium, at a time yet to be determined. Aggregate scoring will determine which team moves on to face either Toronto FC or the New York Red Bulls in the conference finals.
Following its 10-17-7 expansion season in 2015, NYCFC turned things around in a hurry, going 15-10-9 and earning the No. 2 seed in the Eastern playoffs last year. With that lofty position came a first-round bye. But once the conference semifinals started, NYCFC found itself up against a juggernaut in Toronto. The eventual MLS Cup runner-up destroyed City to the tune of 7-0 in aggregate scoring over the two legs.
Now, NYCFC, under second-year head coach Patrick Vieira, is back and again the No. 2 seed in the East following a 16-9-9 (57 points) regular season. The Boys in Blue will see a very familiar opponent in Columbus starting Tuesday night. The teams met in the final game of the regular season on Oct. 22, a 2-2 draw at Citi Field that earned NYCFC the first-round bye and sent the Crew to Thursday’s knockout-round showdown with upstart Atlanta United FC.
Columbus overcame a hostile crowd of more than 67,000 in Atlanta, riding the incredible goaltending of Zack Steffen to advance on penalty kicks.
NYCFC is 2-2-3 all-time against Columbus, including 1-1-2 at MAPFRE Stadium, winning 3-2 there back in April. The Crew have won six of their last seven at home, outscoring opponents 14-5. City, on the other hand, closed the regular season with just one loss in its final six on the road (2-1-3), conceding just five goals during that span.
David Villa is the driving force behind NYCFC’s offense. The Spanish legend scored 22 goals this season, including both in the regular season-ending draw against Columbus, and has 63 in 94 career regular season matches. Jack Harrison chipped in 10 goals for the Boys in Blue, who have been searching for additional secondary scoring all season.
As far as distributing the ball goes, Villa and Maxi Moralez (five goals) were NYCFC’s top playmakers, each finishing with nine assists.
Columbus has a much more balanced attack, with Ola Kamara leading the way with 18 goals, followed by Justin Meram with 13 and Federico Higuain with nine, to go along with his team-high 14 assists.
NYCFC’s defense, led by goaltender Sean Johnson and backs Alexander Callens, Ben Sweat, Frederic Brillant, Ronald Matarrita and newcomer Andraz Struna, is vastly improved over last year. City allowed just 43 goals this season, 14 fewer than in 2016, thanks in large part to Johnson’s seven clean sheets.
Callens played every minute of the regular season. Defender Maxime Chanot, who has been out due to injury since July but recently resumed training, is not expected to play.
The key to NYCFC advancing may come down to midfield play, where Moralez, 19-year-old Yangel Herrera and veteran Alexander Ring form a formidable group that will be tasked with maintaining possession and creating scoring chances.