WASHINGTON, D.C. — On July 14, Wayne Rooney stepped onto a Major League Soccer pitch wearing a D.C. United uniform for the first time.
Rooney’s arrival, combined with the opening of the sparkling Audi Field, reignited D.C. United. The English playmaker formed an attacking midfield partnership with Luciano Acosta, and the two were nearly unstoppable toward the end of the season. The Black-and-Red ended the regular season on a 10-game unbeaten streak. Rooney tallied 12 goals and seven assists for D.C. United and Acosta has racked up nine goals and 10 assists since the arrival of his veteran teammate.
So, how, exactly, did the Columbus Crew SC stroll into Audi Field Thursday and shut the dynamic pair down?
“We watched (Rooney and Acosta) extensively,” Crew head coach Gregg Berhalter said after his team’s playoff victory. “They had a really strong last 10 games and we knew we had our work cut out for us. We just focused on the plan. How to stay compact, how to prevent central passes and the guys did a really good job. There wasn’t space. There wasn’t really an option. When you take two high-caliber players out of the game, it helps your chances to win.”
Rooney and Acosta combined for four shots, but neither found the back of the net, even when the game went to penalty kicks. Rooney created a game-high six chances, but none of those resulted in a goal either. Both of D.C. United’s goals really resulted from mistakes by the Crew.
Zack Steffen mishandled a cross from Acosta and gifted a goal to Frederic Brillant in the 21st minute, and an errant header by Gyasi Zardes in the 116th minute was smashed back in by Nick DeLeon.
As Berhalter explained, the game plan was designed to prevent Rooney and Acosta from getting space and building up through the middle of the field. The Crew accomplished this by closing down on the pair with their centerbacks and midfielders, pushing Rooney and Acosta away from the box.
The Crew’s back four of Milton Valenzuela, Harrison Afful, Gaston Sauro and Jonathan Mensah combined for nine tackles, eight interceptions and 13 clearances. Afful also had an assist.
“I thought they were beasts tonight,” Steffen said of his defense. “The whole team fought so hard. (Mensah and Sauro) kept Rooney at bay and didn’t really have any opportunities. I thought they were great.”
Wil Trapp played a big part in neutralizing D.C. United’s attack, racking up four tackles, two interceptions and a clearance. Trapp also had a hand in keeping possession and pushing the offense, creating five chances and completing 89 of 105 passes.
“I think in transition we were excellent. Every time we turned over the ball we got into a good shape, we got pressure on the ball and we covered the middle of the field which is something we work on quite tirelessly,” Trapp said. “Our forwards do a ton of work denying central passes. We did a really good job with our centerbacks jamming up Rooney and Acosta every time they tried to get the ball. They’re good players, they’re always going to create chances, but the more you can push them wide and have them dropping deeper, that’s good for us.”
A boost from Pipa
Federico Higuain had a stretch this season from June 13 through Sept. 19 where he did not score a goal or tally an assist. The Argentine started to shake off the salt near the end of the season, tallying two of each in the last five games, but Higuain really stepped for the Crew Thursday night, tallying two goals.
“Pipa thrives in the playoffs,” Trapp said. “He steps up defensively, offensively and his effort is just incredible. When see a guy like that doing it, it breeds confidence for the rest of the group.”
Higuain scored an equalizer in the 31st minute by cleaning up a scramble in front of the goal, slotting a shot past Bill Hamid and a gaggle of D.C. United defenders.
“He loves playoff soccer,” Justin Meram said. “Our maestro stepped up in many big ways. Not just the goals, but keeping possession, getting out of tight spaces and playing guys through. Hats off to him. I love playing with him.”
The 34-year-old found the back of the net again in the 96th minute, heading in a cross from Harrison Afful. To get the ball on target, Higuain jumped over Steve Birnbaum and sort of stopped in mid air and contorted his head in such a way that made the ball land in the lower left corner of the net, escaping the reach of an outstretched Bill Hamid.
“It was an amazing cross and I hit it with some good direction,” Higuain said.
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Added Berhalter of Higuain: “He was excellent. He has special qualities. The whole crowd was around him. There was noise and it’s hectic and he’s a guy that can slow the game down and play at the pace we want.”
Higuain is now in his seventh season with the Crew. He’s tallied 54 goals and 58 assists across 179 appearances with the club.
While there’s some that think the River Plate product is nearing the end of his career, he doesn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel just yet.
“People here treat me very well. They push me all the time,” Higuain said. “I just want to play as long as possible. I love this game. I really like this moment of the year.”
Higuain scored Columbus’s first penalty Thursday night, but stepping up second was Trapp, who has just two career MLS goals.
The big stage was no problem for the 25-year-old Ohio native though. He stepped up and delivered a slow roller to the lower left corner that deceived and beat Hamid.
“Gregg determined it. When we were drawing up the order, I said I wanted one, and he put me second,” Trapp said. “It was just one of those things where I felt it was kind of a captain duty to do. I’ve been taking them in training and scoring them, so it’s just being confident.”
Berhalter on how the Crew played: “I’m proud. It was a tough task. We didn’t play our 100 percent game, but having said that, we were able to do enough. I like the attitude of the guys, I like the focus and just the mindset of this game. We were confident and we weren’t fazed. That’s going to go a long way into this next round.”
Meram on his parents’ native country, Iraq: “For me, the country of Iraq has given me so much. It’s always an honor to play for my nation. We’re always praying for the country and we hope that the suffering stops sooner than later because they’re amazing people back home and they don’t deserve what they’re going through. So, prayers for them and hopefully this ends soon… Christian, Muslim, whatever it may be, we’re a family there. We’re all treated equally. That’s what keeps us playing together and well. That doesn’t matter. Playing football for our country is what matters most… I saw some Iraqis here tonight. They come out all the time to support, so it’s a blessing.”
Trapp on getting a home playoff game: “All the while, last year, this whole year, the end of the season against Minnesota, after the news has come out, we wanted to give (the fans) a home playoff game and we’ve done that. We know Sunday will be a wonderful crowd and it’s against a great opponent. Our plan is to try and win the game.”
Trapp on nobody believing in Columbus: “We don’t shy away from those moments. We embrace the underdog role… We had the same thing last year a little bit. Let’s be honest, we limped into the playoffs a little bit. In some ways, it’s kind of fitting that there isn’t a whole lot of belief in us because we haven’t garnered a ton with our performances. This is a huge stepping stone for us just for our confidence.”