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Formation change leads to goal avalanche for Columbus Crew in 3-2 win over Red Bulls

Jul 28, 2018; Harrison, NJ, USA; Columbus Crew defender Josh Williams (3) heads the ball toward goal as New York Red Bulls midfielder Sean Davis (27) defends during the first half at Red Bull Arena. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

HARRISON, N.J. — The formation change wasn’t in response to Columbus Crew SC’s recent road woes — four straight games without a win or even a goal — but it proved to be the spark needed for a rare offensive explosion and an important road win.

Columbus scored as many goals in the first 31 minutes as it had in the previous 10 road games combined and held off a furious rally from the New York Red Bulls to win 3-2 at Red Bull Arena Saturday night.

Crew SC coach Gregg Berhalter went away from his staple 4-2-3-1 formation to play with two strikers, partnering newly-acquired Patrick Mullins with Gyasi Zardes up front.

The game plan was to play the ball wide to avoid the middle of the field, which is a Red Bulls strength. But New York coach Chris Armas also altered his formation, switching from his usual 4-2-3-1 look to a 3-3-3-1 look at the start of the game, which “left the middle open,” according to Berhalter.

“We pulled [Harrison Afful] inside, dropped Pedro [Santos] inside and pushed our wing backs high to create space centrally,” Berhalter said.

Mullins made the most of his first start for the Crew since arriving after a trade with D.C. United two weeks ago. He latched onto a Santos free kick and headed back in front of the goal, where Jonathan Mensah tapped it in to snap a 372-minute road shutout streak in the 7th minute. 

Zack Steffen made arguably the biggest of his four saves in the 18th minute when he ranged to his left to deny Aaron Long on a header at the edge of the six-yard box.

“If that goes in, the game can be completely different,” Steffen said. “It was a good moment for me and kept our team in the game so it was good.” 

Mullins was then played into space by Afful and took two touches before clinically finishing low inside the far post to double Columbus’ lead in the 24th minute. It was Mullins’ first goal since Sept. 27, 2017, when he also scored at Red Bull Arena for D.C. United.

“Every team I’ve been on hasn’t really liked Red Bulls too much,” said Mullins, who previously played for New England, New York City FC and D.C.  United. “Columbus doesn’t have a rivalry with them per se, but its always battles against them. I’m very proud to come here and get a result, get a goal and just contribute to the team, which is most important to me.”

 

Columbus (10-7-6, 37 points) tacked on a third goal in the 31st minute when Sean Davis headed a Santos corner into his own goal.

Man, it was brutal,” Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles said of the first half. “I don’t really have any reasons for it, it’s just we know internally it’s not good enough. We’re not necessarily going to point fingers at anyone or give any excuses, but the standards that we have here are high and that didn’t meet it so at the end of the day it was a big fail by us and we’ll learn from it.”

The Crew knew a push would come from the Red Bulls (13-6-2, 41 points) in the second half with Armas bringing on Bradley Wright-Phillips and Kaku at halftime and switching back to his usual 4-2-3-1.

A Mensah own goal five minutes after halftime, followed by Danny Royer’s sixth goal of the season in the 69th minute, pulled New York within a goal. But their furious rally fell short and Columbus earned an important road win, which came after an emotional come-from-behind victory over Orlando City SC last Saturday at MAPFRE Stadium.

“We programmed ourselves all week to have intensity and to be focused and that’s what we need from here on out,” Crew SC captain Wil Trapp said. “It can’t just be when we play this opponent. It has to be every game and that will help us out a lot.”

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