"Their midfield has been key to their success and we understand that," Crew SC captain and center back Michael Parkhurst said this week. "We don't want to give these guys time on the ball."
The Black and Gold's run to the MLS Cup Playoffs a year ago and a third place finish in the Eastern Conference coincided with consistent midfield play. Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay locked down the wing spots and began contributing goals and assists. Despite playing together all year, Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani's partnership in the middle began to blossom as they became comfortable with head coach Gregg Berhalter's system.
Saturday's contest will be a battle of strong midfields. In two games this season, New York's midfield five have dominated Sporting Kansas City and D.C. United, two teams with traditionally strong midfield groups.
The engine is defensive midfielder Dax McCarty. The 11-year pro not only breaks up the opposition's attack, but involves himself in the offense as well from his deep-lying position. Last week, it was McCarty who created the chance for striker Bradley Wright-Phillips' first goal of the season with a beautiful long ball into the D.C. penalty area.
"He gets it," Parkhurst said of McCarty. "He's been in the league a long time and he works really hard. I really like Dax's game."
Columbus does not want to give McCarty space on the ball due to his ability to find his teammates in dangerous positions, but this will be easier said than done with the other weapons that surround him.
Lloyd Sam only has 11 goals in his four-year MLS career, but the winger has already scored in both games the Red Bulls have played in 2015.
"He scored a great goal against Kansas City, scored a good goal against D.C., and he's a dangerous player and we're certainly going to have to be aware of him," Berhalter said of Sam. "We definitely highlighted his movement and his ability in the analysis."
Keeping track of Sam will be imperative for Crew SC in the battle for the midfield. The winger is operating under a new role in new head coach Jesse Marsch's system, one where he pinches centrally more than he did a year ago.
"It causes some confusion," Parkhurst said when asked about Sam's movement. "The outside back doesn't know whether to go with [the winger] and leave that gap or stay in their position. If he does, than Sam turns and runs, so it's definitely a lot of communication between the outside back and the outside mid, also the defensive mid sliding over."
Fortunately, the Crew SC defense have some experience dealing with wingers who like to come to the middle. Berhalter's outside midfielders are asked to slide centrally as the team goes forward, allowing space for the attacking outside backs on the flanks. Having worked against it in training could be a benefit when attempting to slow down the red hot Sam.
There are three new additions to the Red Bulls' midfield. Felipe Martin and Sal Zizzo came from the Montreal Impact and Kansas City respectively. Felipe is a true central midfielder who has 25 assists in his first three years in the league. Zizzo is more of a true winger, providing crosses in for Wright-Phillips.
The other new signing is Sacha Kljestan. The attacking midfielder, who played for Chivas USA before a stint in Europe. The U.S. international is doing his best to fill the void left by Thierry Henry, playing underneath Wright-Philllips.
"He's a very good soccer player. I really like Sacha," Parkhurst, who's played with and against Kljestan, said of the midfielder.
"He understands the game, he sees the game. He's a good soccer player. He connects well with their midfield. He finds good gaps to get into to receive the ball to make it difficult for a center back to push on to him but difficult for a D-mid to know where he is behind him."
Similar to how New York will look to shutdown Crew SC maestro Federico Higuain, Columbus will want to keep Kljestan from having an impact on the game.
The task of shutting down the midfield will be made more complicated if Trapp misses the match. The midfielder has been limited in training over the last week with an injury and is going to be a game-time decision.
If he cannot go, Mohammed Saeid will likely take his spot. Saeid played for the suspended Tchani in the Toronto FC game and impressed against Michael Bradley and Sebastian Giovinco.
Although the Black and Gold are aware of the weapons the Red Bulls possess, they will continue to focus on playing their game and making New York adjust to them. In keeping the ball, they limit the time the Red Bulls players have with it and thus limit the danger they can create.
Saturday night should be a fun one with two teams that can play out of their midfield. If either side can really take control, it could be what sings the pendulum at MAPFRE Stadium.