David Villa celebrates his first goal. (Vincent Carchietta/USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
QUEENS, N.Y. — Despite giving up the equalizing goal in the second half, despite David Villa having a penalty kick saved deep in stoppage time and despite winning only once in its last seven matches, New York City FC still managed to earn a bye from the knockout round of the MLS playoffs.
City managed to walk out of Citi Field with a 2-2 draw with Columbus Crew SC Sunday, a result that kept the team in second place in the Eastern Conference.
In other words, NYCFC (16-9-9, 57 points) won’t have to worry about playing a mid-week match and worry about starting the postseason in the conference semifinals. City had a 1-2-4 mark over its last seven games of the regular season.
Coupled with Atlanta United’s (15-9-10, 55) 2-2 home with Toronto FC, City remained in second place. Columbus, which took fifth place, finished at 16-12-6 and 54 points.
David Villa, who already had two goals, could have made the Atlanta result moot if he had converted a penalty kick in the 93rd minute. Goalkeeper Zach Steffen had taken down Maxi Moralez in the box, but referee Ismail Elfath did not award a penalty kick immediately.
However, the video assistant referee wanted to see the play again and ruled that indeed it was a penalty.
Villa fired his penalty kick to the left as Steffen guessed correctly and made the save.
Though NYCFC dominated the opening minutes, Columbus struck first against the run of play.
Federico Higuain fed Ole Kamara an exquisite lead ball from the right flank and the striker broke through to slot the ball past goalkeeper Sean Johnson for a 1-0 lead in the 11th minute.
Undaunted, City continued to attack and its effort paid off six minutes later. Villa, who had been struggling to find the net since returning from the adductor injury he suffered with the Spanish national team, equalized. While battling midfielder Mohammed Abu for position, Villa headed home a Maxi Moralez corner kick from six yards in the 17th minute.
Villa dazzled the crowd in the 45th minute. Crew defender Harrison Afful could not control a right-wing pass from a City player as the ball bounded to Villa. The Spanish international put his moves on Afful before drilling a 16-yard shot off goalkeeper Zack Steffen’s hands and into the lower left corner for his 22nd goal of the season and a 2-1 advantage.
Columbus, however, would not go away. Higuain was the playmaker again as he swung a corner kick toward the goal box. Josh Williams outleaped Johnson for the ball and headed the ball home from close range for a 2-2 deadlock in the 58th minute.
With Johnson caught on the left side of the goal with the action on the other end, the visitors came as close to scoring as a team can in the 74th minute. Villa, defending on a corner kick, tried to head the ball out of harm’s way but it went toward the goal. Center back Frederic Brillant, however, headed the ball off the line to save a potential Columbus goal.
Some 30 seconds later, Villa almost atoned for his mistake as he volleyed a hard shot toward the net that Steffen parried away.
11’ – CLB: Ola Kamara (Assisted By: Federico Higuaín)
18’ – NYC: David Villa (Assisted By: Maximiliano Morález)
45’ – NYC: David Villa
58’ – CLB: Josh Williams (Assisted By: Federico Higuaín)
69’ – NYC: Yangel Herrera (Yellow Card)
New York City FC: Sean Johnson; Ben Sweat, Alexander Callens, Frederic Brillant, Ethan White; Maximiliano Morález, Alexander Ring, Yangel Herrera (87’ Jonathan Lewis); Rodney Wallace (82’ Ronald Matarrita); David Villa, Jack Harrison (77’ Khiry Shelton)
Substitutions Not Used: Eirik Johansen, Andraz Struna, Andrea Pirlo, Thomas McNamara,
Columbus Crew SC: Zack Steffen; Jukka Raitala, Josh Williams, Jonathan Mensah, Harrison Afful; Wil Trapp, Mohammed Abu (79’ Adam Jahn), Pedro Santos, Federico Higuaín, Justin Meram (77’ Kekuta Manneh); Ola Kamara
Substitutions Not Used: Brad Stuver, Lalas Abubakar, Héctor Jiménez, Cristian Martínez, Artur