For the first time since 2007, the New England Revolution have advanced to the MLS Eastern Conference Finals. A convincing 3-1 win over the Columbus Crew at Gillette Stadium on Sunday put them up to a commanding 7-3 aggregate lead, which sees them through to face New York in the next round.
In front of a playoff-record crowd of 20,184, the home squad picked up goals from Lee Nguyen, Jose Goncalves, and Teal Bunbury, while the Crew got a consolation strike from Tony Tchani. The match also saw a scary near-injury to the head and two red cards, both incurred by Columbus.
"We were bending but not breaking tonight," said Jay Heaps. "And in the end, we were happy to get the three goals."
The opener could not have come at a more crucial time for the Revolution. Columbus had been enjoying a lion's share of possession and chances when Teal Bunbury was released down the left flank by Kelyn Rowe in the 43rd minute. Bunbury chased it down and crossed unsuccessfully before collecting the clearance, settling it, and then delivering another to the top of the six.
He was probably targeting Charlie Davies, who was wrapped up in a battle with his defender and attempting to set himself up to settle and shoot. Instead, it was none other than MVP-candidate Lee Nguyen who filled the space with a late run and side-volleyed the ball into the back of the net from close range.
"We talked about how important the first goal was going to be, and how that was going to change the complexion of the game," said Bobby Shuttleworth after the match. "We've been lucky enough, this run we've been on, we've been scoring a lot of goals. Hopefully we can continue to do that."
Even if the rest of the team was having issues waking up and coping with the Crew's pressure, Shuttleworth was at his very best throughout the half. He made several outstanding saves, but none more important than the one right before the whistle for halftime.
Justin Meram crossed up Chris Tierney with a deft cutback on the left before whipping in a perfect cross. Jairo Arrieta rose to meet it in the box at close range, but Shuttleworth somehow got his hands up and parried it over for a corner.
"I thought Bobby was excellent tonight," said Heaps. "If it's tied going into half it's a different story. I thought that save was the one that, for me, really stood out. It kept us afloat."
New England scored their second goal in the 55th minute and, at that point, put the result out of reach for the Crew. The goal itself was a classic Revolution counterattack thanks to a three-on-one break, but with a very unusual scorer.
After Nguyen came out at midfield with the ball and sprayed it right to Charlie Davies, the two took off down field with a curious companion on the left: captain and central defender Jose Goncalves. Goncalves burst down the field at a dead sprint, covering the length of the pitch before Davies crossed to him perfectly in the box. At that point, last year's MLS Defender of the Year just put a gentle side-footed finish on the ball that bounced in off the near post with Steve Clark beaten.
"I knew that going forward they will take some risks," said Goncalves. "They have to take some risks. It means they will open the back, and if we play very well and very smart we will get a lot of chances to counter, and that's what we did. I think we could have scored more goals, but I am very happy with the performance."
Columbus clawed one back through a Tony Tchani header. Justin Meram's free kick delivery was on point, and Tchani rose above everyone in the box to finally beat Shuttleworth in the 69th minute.
Before that, though, in the 61st minute, the match saw its first red card after a scary moment for Shuttleworth. The red-hot goalkeeper had come off of his line to meet a ball played in for Ethan Finlay in the box. Shuttleworth was first to it, but Finlay was unable to avoid trailing his leg through and caught Shuttleworth square in the head.
Finlay was shown a red card by referee Armando Villarreal, which may have been harsh on the player, but Shuttleworth was eventually on his feet and able to soldier on.
"I wasn't unconscious," he said. "I was just trying to get my bearings. I don't think he meant to do it, he came up to me after and was apologizing several times. I think he was trying to go for the ball, I don't think there was any intent there at all."
The Revs sewed up the victory in the 77th minute thanks to Teal Bunbury. The striker-turned-winger has been much-maligned this season for his profligacy in front of goal, even as his two-way and creative game has been crucial to the squad, but mere minutes after wasting a golden chance, Bunbury put away the third and final Revolution goal.
Substitute Daigo Kobayashi received the ball in midfield and dwelled on it for a short time before cutting to his right and seeing Bunbury free off the shoulder of a defender. Kobayashi's slick floor pass split the defense, and Bunbury ripped off a deadly finish with his left foot that found the roof of the net before Clark could even react.
"He scored with his left, it was a little bit funny," said Jermaine Jones of the strike with a laugh. "He has his left foot to stand on it, not to shoot. But I'm happy for him that he scored. He works really hard for the team."
The fireworks didn't end until the 85th minute when Meram was issued his marching orders after a tough foul on Kevin Alston. Meram stomped on Alston's heel and Achilles area, and was sent off with his second yellow card of the night.
New England is back in action after a week-long break, taking on the New York Red Bulls in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Final at Red Bull Arena on November 23rd.