COLUMBUS, Ohio — Playing on short rest after an upset penalty-kick win over D.C. United on Thursday, Columbus Crew SC faced a tall task against the New York Red Bulls. The reigning Supporter’s Shield winners entered MAPFRE stadium with the best regular season record in MLS history; the second year in a row that Crew SC has had to face a playoff team with that distinction.
But Columbus was undaunted. Utilizing an atypical 4-4-2 formation in the first half in order to give Federico Higuain much needed rest, Crew SC coach Gregg Berhalter gambled his team could hold the Red Bulls scoreless, and it paid off. Thanks in part to a return to their usual formation after halftime, Columbus pulled off a 1-0 victory in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals Sunday afternoon.
“With all the guys, there was an assessment,” Berhalter said. “We’re trying to figure out where these guys are at, guys who played 120 minutes, where they are at physically, and finding the balance between how many changes we can make and still be successful. It wasn’t easy.”
Though it may not have been easy, Columbus made it look that way on the field. Following a scoreless first half, Higuain was brought on for and immediately made an impact on the game. His play energized Crew SC and helped lead to the lone goal in the 61st minute. Milton Valenzuela sent a long pass to Higuain, who had a no-look one-touch backheel to Gyasi Zardes for the goal.
“We know there centerbacks are very oriented markers,” Higuain said. “I thought maybe the centerback would be very close to me, and I release the ball, as I always do. I have to. I’m a Number 10, I have to try to do something different. if not, it’s not enough.”
The other highlight reel player for Columbus was Zack Steffen. Though he wasn’t called upon often, he came up big every time. In the first half, Steffen made a diving stop with his face after a ball ricocheted off the post off Tim Parker’s head. In the second half, he raced off his line to beat Daniel Royer to a ball closer to the halfway line than the touchline. Nothing was bigger than in stoppage time when Steffen dived and swatted away a Bradley Wright-Phillips glancing header near the low corner to preserve the shutout.
Nov 4, 2018; Columbus, OH, USA; Columbus Crew SC defender Jonathan Mensah (4) reacts after the end of the game against New York Red Bulls at Mapfre Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports
“The mark of a goalie that is really worth his weight in gold is a goalie that can come up with the big save even when he doesn’t have a lot to do. And that is exactly what [Steffen] did tonight,” Berhalter said.
“[Making big plays] makes me focus more, and gets me into the game a little more. When you’re just standing back there commanding…it can get a little boring,” Steffen said with a laugh. “When you’re called upon and you’re able to make the play, it feels good.”
Thanks to the 1-0 scoreline, a multitude of results will advance Columbus to the Eastern conference finals. Any scoreline of a win or a draw will see the team advance. With away goals as the first tiebreaker, any loss by one goal if Crew SC also scores will advance the team. A 1-0 win by New York will send the game to extra time. To advance without any overtime, the Red Bulls need to win by two. The game will be played on Sunday, November 11 at Red Bull Arena.
Despite the big win, Crew SC is keeping the excitement low knowing that they still need a good performance on the road.
“It’s gonna be hard,” Columbus captain Wil Trapp said. “It’s going to be very difficult. We’re halfway through this series, but we can’t relax. It’s great to get this win obviously, but we need to recuperate and get ready for Sunday.”