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Substitutions too late? Not on the whole for Columbus Crew SC

Even Gregg Berhalter knows he waited to long to make changes.

MLS: New York City FC at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

As the clocked continued to tick in the second half of Columbus Crew SC’s contest with New York City FC on Saturday, many around MAPFRE Stadium were asking the same question.

“Where are the substitutions?”

The Black & Gold gave up an early goal, but battled back to equalize before halftime and take the lead just four minutes into the second half thanks to high pressure from Ethan Finlay, eyes in the back of the head of Federico Higuain and a classic Ola Kamara finish.

Following the goal, New York City responded well, which, according to head coach Gregg Berhalter, was expected.

“As the game is going on, we got the goal early, the second goal, and now you think this is a period where they’re putting us under pressure, but it’s normal,” he said.

What wasn’t normal was Crew SC’s inability to win the ball back off City and regain control of the match. Instead, the Columbus players defended and then defended some more, getting tired and out of rhythm.

Yet no substitutions came.

With both physical and mental fatigue setting in after coming from behind, the Black & Gold let its guard down. In the 64th minute, NYCFC fullback Ben Sweat was given too much time by Finlay and served a cross into the penalty box that was headed home by midfielder Yangel Herrera.

On level pegging, Crew SC was at risk of not taking three points at home for only the second time this Major League Soccer season. Although Columbus got back into the match, a turnover at the back led to a 76th minute game-winning goal for City.

“For me it’s about assessing when is putting under pressure becoming now we need to get fresh legs in there. And I made the wrong call,” Berhalter admitted. “I think we could have possibly made some substitutions earlier to give us the energy and maybe get our footing back into the game.”

Substitutes are tricky things because a coach never knows for sure what impact a player will have coming off the bench or how a player will do if he remains on the field. Finlay played a large part in the go-ahead goal and he was the most likely candidate to come out. Substituting him shortly after the assist, especially after he didn’t start the previous two matches, could have sent the wrong message.

“It’s very difficult when you do have that positive event in the second half and you pull a guy five or six minutes later,” Berhalter said.

Five minutes after the third New York City goal, Berhalter brought in Kekuta Manneh and Niko Hansen for Justin Meram and Finlay, both of whom expended a lot of energy up and down the flanks. Five more minutes and forward Adam Jahn came on for defender Nicolai Naess.

Manneh and Hansen brought life back into the Crew SC offense and Jahn got on the end of a couple crosses late in the match. Had these players come on earlier, could Columbus have earned a point or three? Possibly.

To give perspective, the 81st minute substitution was the second-latest Berhalter has used his first of three this season. The only initial change that came later was in the 86th minute against Orlando City SC. That match was a 2-0 victory.

Berhalter’s average first substitution in 2017, taking out forced changes, has been in the 65th minute. He pulled fullback Harrison Afful at halftime in favor of a rookie in Week 2 and no injury was involved.

It’s not as if Berhalter is adverse to making early, or timely, changes, but in this case he elected to stick with his starting 11, something that worked earlier in the year.

Was he wrong to do so? Hindsight is certainly 20/20, but he even admits that he was. And it’s hard to argue with that.