Crew edges Red Bulls, Atlanta downs NYCFC in MLS Cup playoffs

American Gyasi Zardes's 61st-minute strike was enough to give the battle-tested Columbus Crew a 1-0 upset win over the New York Red Bulls in its MLS Cup first-leg playoff clash.

Atlanta United FC's Darlington Eric Remedi, center, scored the winner against New York City FC's in the MLS semifinals.   -  AP

American Gyasi Zardes's 61st-minute strike was enough to give the battle-tested Columbus Crew a 1-0 upset win over the New York Red Bulls in its MLS Cup first-leg playoff clash on Sunday.

The Red Bulls, winners of the Supporters' Shield as the team with the best regular-season record, set Major League Soccer records with 22 wins and 71 points.

While they enjoyed a bye, the Crew battled through an Eastern Conference knockout round playoff clash with Wayne Rooney's DC United, emerging victorious in a penalty shootout on Thursday.

Four days on they had the Red Bulls on the back foot, beating New York for the fourth time in four playoff meetings to seize the upper hand in the Eastern Conference semifinal which concludes next Sunday in Harrison, New Jersey.

Columbus striker Zardes blasted a right-footed shot into the goal off a sensational backheel pass from Argentine forward Federico Higuain for the lone goal of the contest.

The Red Bulls nearly equalised in the dying seconds of stoppage time but a close-range header from English striker Bradley Wright-Phillips to the inside right corner was deflected past the post by Columbus goalkeeper Zack Steffen.

Argentina's Higuain, who played all 120 minutes against DC United, came on at halftime, a calculated risk by Crew coach Gregg Berhalter.

“I think he actually recovered really well, and was actually in a position to potentially start the game. But we felt that we needed something else in the first half,” Berhalter said.

“We needed power. We needed to stretch them. We needed to open them up and really get after them in the first half and then thinking about 'Will he be able to maintain that for 90 minutes?' So we took a gamble.”

Red Bulls' Luis Robles was confident New York could turn things around at home next weekend and keep alive their bid to cap a spectacular season with the MLS Cup crown.

“Down 1-0, going back to Red Bull Arena where we've been so good this year -- I like our chances,” he said.

Atlanta takes charge

Atlanta United, who challenged for the Supporters' Shield before settling for the second-best regular-season record, took control of their Eastern Conference series against New York City FC with a 1-0 victory at Yankee Stadium.

Eric Remedi tapped home the first professional goal of his career late in the first half to decide a bruising contest that saw the teams combine for 22 fouls in the first half.

Atlanta's pressure paid off in the 37th minute when Josef Martinez fired a volley off a corner kick that City keeper Sean Johnson only managed to deflect.

In the scramble that followed Remedi was able to poke the ball across the goal line.

In the West, goals from Jeremy Ebobisse and Sebastian Blanco led the Portland Timbers to a 2-1 home victory over the Seattle Sounders.

The first playoff series in five years between the Cascadia rivals saw Raul Ruidiaz score in the 10th minute to give Seattle an early lead.

Portland responded with two goals in the space of 12 minutes, Ebobisse beating the offside trap to grab the equaliser in the 17th and Blanco firing the Timbers ahead in the 29th -- eluding several defenders before beating Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei.

The Sounders host the second leg on Thursday and could have some injury concerns. Cristian Roldan departed the game in the 31st minute with a groin injury and Chad Marshall limped off before halftime with a right knee injury.

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