Columbus Crew blanks New York Red Bulls in MLS playoff opener

Justin Meram scored the fastest playoff goal in Major League Soccer history Sunday and the Columbus Crew blanked the New York Red Bulls 2-0 in the first leg of the Eastern Conference finals.

US midfielder Meram’s tally after only nine seconds and Kei Kamara’s goal in the 85th minute off stellar footwork by fellow African standout Cedrick Mabwati gave the Crew a major edge entering next Sunday’s rematch at New York.

The aggregate winner advances to the MLS Cup final on December 6 against the Western Conference champion, either FC Dallas or the Portland Timbers.

Off the opening kickoff, Crew midfielder Wil Trapp blasted a high ball forward to Sierra Leone striker Kamara, who flicked a header forward to the chest of Ethan Finlay.

Finlay managed a shot that was smothered but the ball came out to Meram, who stretched out his right foot and fired the ball into the net.

The Red Bulls, who had not been held scoreless since May, surrendered a second goal five minutes from full time after a tremendous play by Democratic Republic of Congo substitute Mabwati.

Starting at the top of the penalty area, Mabwati weaved past three defenders and drove to the right post. He flicked the ball past New York goalkeeper Luis Robles and left the ball in front of a wide open net for Kamara to apply the finishing nudge.

It was the 25th goal of the year and fourth of the playoffs for Kamara, who was mindful the Crew’s work was not done if they hope to add a second MLS crown to their 2008 title.

“We knew they were going to press us. It was hard to get out of the press,” Kamara said. “We scored some big goals. We’ve got to get back to work and get ready for the next one.”

It was the Crew’s first home shutout win in 14 matches.

“We’ve been improving defensively,” Crew coach Gregg Berhalter said. “There’s a difference between that and not allowing goals and today we had both.”