by John Furgele
For the first time in franchise history, the Columbus Crew will play for the Major League Soccer Championship. The Crew, which had the best record in all of MLS with a 17-7-6 record rallied from a 1-0 halftime deficit to defeat the visiting Chicago Fire 2-1.
Chicago struck first and did so by catching the homestanding Crew napping. After the ball went out of play, Fire midfielder Cuauthlemoc Blanco quickly threw the ball into Justin Mapp, who delivered a beautiful cross to former Crew player Brian McBride who headed the ball home in the 29th minute. The Fire controlled most of the first half play to the delight of a strong contingent of Fire faithful, but could not add to its lead.
The second half was like watching a different game as the Crew came out aggresively, and quickly tied the score on a Chad Marshall header in the 49th minute on a set piece corner kick. The goal seemed to energize the Crew and deflate the Fire and the Crew took advantage as Eddie Gaven scored the championship winner in the 55th minute.
Eventually, the Fire were able to settle down and nearly tied the score with John Thorrington’s shot grazing the crossbar in the 65th minute. McBride almost notched his second goal but was denied in the 73rd minute.
Both teams had their chances with Columbus outshooting Chicago 13-11. The Fire, which won the title in its first year in 1998 went 6-5-4 on the road, but the seventh win was not in the cards.
Columbus was an original franchise when MLS began play in 1996, and was the first team to build its own soccer specific stadium. The team is owned by the family of the late Lamar Hunt, one of the founders of the American Football League and the Kansas City Chiefs and a known lover and supporter of soccer.
The Crew will await the winner of the Western Conference Championship Match that will see the New York Red Bulls play at Real Salt Lake. Both Western Conference finalists are upstarts and Columbus will be favored when the MLS Cup Final is played on Sunday, November 23 at 3:30 PM on ABC.