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Sean Davis’ defensive work against Federico Higuain key to New York Red Bulls victory

Nov 11, 2018; Harrison, NJ, USA; New York Red Bulls midfielder Daniel Royer (77) celebrates his goal with midfielder Sean Davis (27) during the second half against the Columbus Crew in the Eastern Conference semifinal at Red Bull Arena. (Vincent Carchietta/USA TODAY Sports)

Alex Muyl scored the first-half goal that calmed nerves around Red Bull Arena and Danny Royer netted a brace in a three-minute span to make things a bit more comfortable in the second half.

But just as importantly, the New York Red Bulls needed to make sure they didn’t concede an away goal on Sunday night after failing to score in Columbus in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Enter Sean Davis.

The 25-year-old midfielder’s brilliant defensive work against Crew SC maestro Federico Higuain was a big reason why the Red Bulls advanced to the Eastern Conference finals courtesy of a 3-0 victory

The Argentine veteran’s influence was felt throughout the MLS Cup playoffs this year, with Higuain scoring a pair of goals and adding a successful conversion in the penalty-kick shootout to upset D.C. United in the knockout round.

Higuain was then at the center of the pivotal moment of the 1-0 win at MAPFRE Stadium. After coming on at halftime, Higuain’s clever flick set up Gyasi Zardes, who put away the game’s lone goal.

With the Red Bulls failing to score an away goal in the first leg, the Crew could radically alter the tie with an away goal.

Davis limited Higuain, one of the league’s top playmakers, to 24 passes and just two key passes, over 90 minutes. In just 45 minutes in the opening leg, the 34-year-old had 20 successful passes, including the critical assist.

“What an incredible job that he did on him, knowing where he is at all times, knowing it’s not a one man job, but he really took his time and space away,” Red Bulls coach Chris Armas said of Davis. “And then other guys understood where he was at all times, because even there, some of their attacking plays come from him drifting wide and then trying to hook some balls in.”

Of course, the other key to quieting Higuain is limiting his touches and that’s where a tactical change involving Tyler Adams became massive.

The 19-year-old played higher up the field than usual, making it difficult for Crew SC defenders, and the defensive midfield pairing of Wil Trapp and Artur to get clean service to Higuain. More often than not, it resulted in long balls that bypassed the midfield — and Higuain — to alleviate the pressure.

“Tactically we pushed Tyler higher up the field. When Wil Trapp and Artur, those guys they’re not just good on the ball, they’re the outlet all the time for how they break pressure, break our pressure, and we said we can’t let it happen again,” Armas said. “But how can we address up the field being aggressive and not get sliced through? So some of it was to really address how we would control spaces, and this game we did a much better job of that. But pushing Tyler higher along with Kaku and pressing the way we did, I thought was the big difference.”

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