When the starting lineups were unveiled an hour before the Columbus Crew's Eastern Conference semifinal opener against the New York Red Bulls, the initial thought was that Gregg Berhalter was limiting his losses in a thankless position.
With just three days rest after a dramatic penalty shootout win against D.C.United, Berhalter left Federico Higuain and Pedro Santos on the bench to start out, hoping replacements Patrick Muillins and Luis Argudo could provide the energy and influence to make up for the absence of two of the team's most dangerous attacking players. More importantly, Berhalter set out a lineup to neutralize the Red Bulls midfield, and hold things down until he could bring on Higuain to work some magic off the bench.
The plan worked to perfection. The Red Bulls were unable to take advantage of Higuain's absence in the first half, playing the Crew to a frustrating stalemate. Higuain entered the match at halftime and immediately rejuvenated the Crew attack, delivering the winning assist on Gyasi Zardes' goal in the 1-0 victory.
"I spoke to Pipa [Higuain] at length and got a feeling [of] where he was at," Berhalter said. "I think he actually recovered really well and was in a position to potentially start the game, but we felt we needed something else in the first half. We needed power. We needed to stretch them. We need to open them up. We needed to really get after them in the first half, and then thinking about will he be able to maintain that for 90 minutes.
"We took a gamble, and we don’t normally do that," Berhalter said. "This time, I think Patrick came in and gave us exactly what we were looking for, and then Pipa came in and gave us the match-winner with a nice assist."
The Crew deserve credit for their defensive performance, which frustrated the Red Bulls in much the same way it frustrated D.C. United on Thursday. The Red Bulls midfield offered little in the way of attacking contributions, in much the same way D.C. United's normally-dangerous midfield struggled to generate chances. The tandem of Wil Trapp and Artur were once again front and center in cutting off passing lanes and maintaining positional discipline while Jonathan Mensah and Josh Williams did well to keep Bradley Wright-Phillips occupied for the most part.
The Red Bulls did have their chances, but the three biggest plays that could have led to Red Bulls goals all went against them. The first, a free header by Tim Parker, went off the post. The second, an incredible long pass from Kaku, threatened to spring a wide-open Daniel Royer downfield only to have an alert Zack Steffen race 40 yards off his line to beat Royer to the ball and snuff out the threat.
The third involved Steffen again, with the U.S. national team goalkeeper diving to his left to pull off a fingertip save of a goal-bound Wright-Phillips header in the final seconds. If Steffen doesn't make that save then the Red Bulls would be returning to Red Bull Arena with a precious away goal and the confidence of knowing a win or 0-0 draw would send them through.Now, the Red Bulls head into the second leg trailing, and knowing they're going up against arguably the league's best goalkeeper, who also happens to be in top form.
"The mark of a goalie who is worth his weight in gold is a goalie that can come up with a big save even though he doesn’t have a lot to do, and that was exactly what Zack did tonight," Berhalter said. "To me, that was a different level that he showed he has."
Thanks to the heroics of Higuain and Steffen, the Red Bulls are once again facing the prospect of seeing another Supporters' Shield-winning season end in disappointment. The remaining task isn't an impossible one — a 2-0 win or any multi-goal win would do the trick, but given how well Steffen and the Crew defense are playing, a goal-fest is far from a sure bet in the second leg. Keeping the Crew from finding an away goal also won't be easy with Higuain in such good form.
The pressure is now squarely on the Red Bulls to not only erase the first-leg deficit, but to avoid subjecting their fans to another playoff nightmare. Red Bulls head coach Chris Armas insists that the team's history of playoff letdowns isn't going to affect his team.
"We haven’t talked about pressure, expectations, and we won’t start that dialogue now," Armas said. "We know we defend well, We did again tonight. We really limited their chances, their big chances, so in many ways we felt in control.
"So the week is going to be about preparing physically, tactically, technically and just getting sharp," Armas said. "Go home and we’ll get ready for the next game with a lot of excitement in front of our home fans. Again, we’ve been very, very good (at home).
"It hurts a little that we don’t get the perfect result here, but certainly, 90 minutes to get the job done at home, we feel good about that."
The Crew also feel good heading into next week's second leg, knowing that a win or draw sends them to the Eastern Conference final for the third time in four years.
"Our message to the group was, ‘We’re halfway through a 180-minute game, potentially more with extra time.’ We’re happy, but we’re not done," Berhalter said. "That’s the important message. I guarantee you in New York, it’s going to be a difficult game, as it was tonight."