Columbus Crew SC is no stranger to playing games on short rest this season.
Four times in 2017, the Black & Gold have played three games in about a week’s span and head coach Gregg Berhalter has made adjustments all year to deal with that fatigue.
On Saturday, Crew SC is on the other side of the coin when the New York Red Bulls come to town.
The Red Bulls played Wednesday night on the road against Sporting Kansas City in the U.S. Open Cup Final, losing 2-1.
“I think it was a good game,” Berhalter said of the match. “A hard-fought game, good competitive game and for both teams, you could see they were fighting for that trophy.”
In that match, New York head coach Jesse Marsch elected to play most of his starters, looking to win the club’s first major trophy.
While this is good news for Columbus in the sense that there should be tired legs for the Red Bulls while Crew SC hasn’t played since Saturday, it also presents a quandary in trying to figure out who will suit up for NYRB at MAPFRE Stadium.
“We could sit here and speculate and guess and say Sacha’s in, Wright-Phillips is in, this guy is out, but I have no idea what they’re going to do,” Berhalter said on Thursday. “We’ll prepare for everyone. We’ll go through all their guys and get a projected lineup and go from there.
My guess would be that Wright-Phillips and Sacha probably play. They need to win and those are their guys.”
Although the attention midweek was on the Open Cup, New York can’t afford many more slip ups in Major League Soccer. The Red Bulls are winless in five games with four consecutive ties entering this match and fell to sixth place in the Eastern Conference over that stretch.
This, combined with the fact that New York put out a largely second-choice lineup last Sunday in a 0-0 draw with the Philadelphia Union at home, means that the Black & Gold should expect players such as forward Bradley Wright-Phillips and attacking midfielder Sacha Kljestan to feature on Saturday.
Berhalter too sounded a bit more sure of that on Friday.
“I would say the way we’re looking at how they’re going to lineup is they may change some other guys, but they’re not changing their key players. I can’t see that happening,” he said.
“To rest them for two consecutive games I think is unlikely. We’ve been looking at the other players, we’ve seen them, but my guess is Sacha and Bradley Wright-Phillips are playing.”
Unlikely, but possible.
And while NYRB possess quality depth, there is some drop off if these key players are not in the lineup.
Backup striker Gonzalo Veron has played 18 times for the Red Bulls, three starts, but has just two goals on the season — Wright-Phillips has 15. The next highest assist men for New York after Kljestan, who has 14 on the year, are defender Kemar Lawrence and midfielder Felipe with five a piece.
But Crew SC center back Josh Williams isn’t as worried about who the Red Bulls put on the field on Saturday. According to the veteran, the focus isn’t so much on NYRB.
“Like I’ve always said all year, we’re going to play our game,” he said. “We’re going to try and do what we do every game and they have to come in and try and stop us. We’re at home. The disadvantage is on them. We want them to have to adjust. We’re not going to adjust to them and I think that’s the attitude we need to have going in.”
But in soccer, there’s always the chance of a letdown when going against a perceived weakened side. The Black & Gold saw that first hand when the team was defeated at home by a New York City FC team without Designated Players David Villa or Andrea Pirlo.
Williams doesn’t see that as happening again.
“Early in the year, you worry about that. Now, these games matter,” he said. “We need three points and I’m sure they’d be happy with one. So we can’t have a mental letdown like that. We have to be prepared for whoever they want to play.”
For Saturday, Crew SC will be ready for the Red Bulls’ stars to be on the field and also take a look at some of the reserve players. When it comes down to it though, going out and executing at home is what will make the difference in the match.
“We can’t be worried about that. We’ve got to be prepared no matter who’s in the game,” Williams said.
“We’re going to play our game.”