Columbus Crew SC convincingly dispatched visiting D.C. United in its 34th and final game of the 2015 regular season Sunday at MAPFRE Stadium, cementing its first-round playoff bye as the Eastern Conference's second seed.
The merits of a five-goal performance on the day are obvious, and Crew SC wholly controlled the second half with a staggering 69.7 percent possession advantage.
Columbus' talent in the central midfield and at forward, however, have seldom been more apparent than in the emphatic drubbing of D.C. The timely emergence of Crew SC's ability to step up as a unified and versatile roster now as it commences postseason play on the heels of such a strong showing can't be undervalued after a brutal road slate in September and October.
"The end of the season's preparing us. We've had a tough stretch," Berhalter said. "The games we've been playing are preparing us for these types of games and then you finally get in a game where you get to prove yourself and we did it."
After winning four of their last six matches and a 3-1 record on the road during their final six weeks of play, the Black & Gold put the stamp on their playoff résumé by shutting down D.C. on both offense and defense. They outclassed their opponent on the stat sheet as well, tallying more than twice as many shots on target (9-4) and crossing balls (22-10) as United took.
Midfielder Kevan George and forward Aaron Schoenfeld notched solid performances in relief Sunday. In one of the biggest games of the year in terms of implication, George was turned to earlier than expected and subbed on in the 40th minute when starter Mohamed Saied went down with an apparent hamstring strain.
"He's behind a strong midfield. He is just, his game has improved so much from last year to this year. And he's much more confident," Berhalter said of George. "It's not a surprise that he's starting for the Trinidad national team. There's no surprise there. What we wanted is to give him a showcase to prove that and he did certainly tonight."
What's especially impressive about George anchoring so well to help Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani have the efficient and overwhelmingly touch-heavy games they did is that Saied was himself an understudy to the suspended Federico Higuain.
"We just again went in last week, training, focusing on their [D.C. United's] tendencies and we just wanted to go out there and get a result, you know, so we can be that second seed," George said. "So, winning by 5-0? We never imagined it, but we'll take it any day of the week."
George went on to discuss his role amid the suspensions and injury woes.
"Naturally, you have a different outlook because once you don't have your regular starters — I'm not necessarily saying it's a negative thing — but you know you have to adjust to the players you have on the field," George explained. "But we weren't nervous or anything because we know we have quality, from the number one guy on the team all the way down the roster. In the end, it was business as usual."
"Credit a guy like Kevan for coming in: the first phase of when he entered the game, he was still adapting, he was still getting his feet," Berhalter said. "The second half, he just exploded. His movement was fantastic, his ball control, his getting it from one person to the next was great."
Schoenfeld came on in the 71st to relieve Jack McInerney — also a replacement, instead for the similarly suspended team MVP in offensive dynamo Kei Kamara — and both forwards who saw the field Sunday hit goalscoring pay dirt. If that doesn't demonstrate the formidableness of Crew SC's depth chart, it's tough to think what else might.
"The opening stretch of the game, we were pressing and pressing and pressing and getting close to getting that goal and it wasn't coming. And I was starting to get a little worried because the chances were there. So it was nice to finally get the goal," Berhalter said. "And Jack, you know, that's what he does. It was a fantastic finish after a good move, and that's what we saw when he was at Montreal and it's great to see that here again.
"His movement was great, I think, it was causing D.C. a lot of problems."
As the first round of the playoffs kicks off later in the week to determine who Crew SC's opposition will be, Berhalter stuck by his team's track record and mental toughness.
"I think there is a fine line between confidence and overconfidence. But we certainly want confidence," the head coach said. "That's a good thing. And you know I'll say it again, with the opponents we had and the road trips we've had and going into tough stadiums, hostile environments. This team is battle-ready and battle-proven. And I think this was a good test for us again and we did a good job."