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Higuain’s magic sparks Crew SC to 1-0 win in Eastern Conference semifinal leg 1

The Black & Gold handled the top team in MLS on Sunday.

Gregg Berhalter discusses Columbus Crew SC’s 1-0 MLS Cup playoffs win.

Posted by Massive Report on Sunday, November 4, 2018

For 34 games in the regular season, the New York Red Bulls were the best team Major League Soccer. The Red Bulls set the MLS record for points in a season with 71 and won the Supporters’ Shield. But on Saturday, in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinal, Columbus Crew SC was the better team and earned an impressive 1-0 win.

Just two minutes into the game, Gyasi Zardes looked to get Crew SC on the board. The forward picked up the ball near midfield and drove toward goal, firing a shot from just outside the penalty box that went wide of Luis Robles’ goal.

After some interplay between the two teams, Columbus had another good opportunity. In the 17th minute. Winger Justin Meram got in behind the Red Bulls’ backline and looked for a cross from the end line. With no forward in a good spot, Meram just tried to put the ball in the danger area but Robles was able to come out and collect.

Bradley Wright-Phillips had a couple of good looks starting in the 24th minute. The New York forward fired a shot wide and then two minutes later looked to find an open back post runner but his cross was blocked by Black & Gold center back Jonathan Mensah.

The Red Bulls had the best chance of the opening 45 minutes and it came during a series of New York corners in the middle portion of the half. Red Bull defender Tim Parker got free and put a headed effort on goal that hit the post and would have gone into the net if not for banging off the head of Crew SC goalkeeper Zack Steffen.

Columbus head coach Gregg Berhalter decided to go for the win to start the second half, bringing on veteran attacking midfielder Federico Higuain to spark the attack.

The change worked in a big way for the Black & Gold. Higuain was a part of a counter attack that ended in him finding Harrison Afful in the penalty box. The fullback tried to pull it back toward the penalty spot but it was cleared by a Red Bull defender.

Two minutes later and it was Higuain again in the middle of a Crew SC attack, but this one resulted in a goal. Left back Milton Valenzuela fed the playmaker near the top of the penalty area. Higuain took a deft flick of the ball to feed Zardes in on goal and Columbus’ leading scorer in the regular season lifted the ball over Robles for the 1-0 lead.

In between the two Black & Gold chances, New York had a great opportunity. A through ball for Daniel Royer found the winger on a breakaway. Steffen came furiously rushing off his line and made a sliding challenge to deny the chance.

The Red Bulls pushed for an equalizer as the half progressed and nearly got one in stoppage time. Wright-Phillips got in between the Columbus center backs and put a header in the bottom corner of the goal. But Steffen dove and got just enough on the ball to preserve the shutout and the 1-0 Crew SC win.

The 4-4-2

Since Gregg Berhalter arrived in Columbus in 2014, Crew SC have played some form of a 4-2-3-1 formation. Rarely have the Black & Gold started a match different. On Sunday, the team did that, choosing to rest Federico Higuain from the start after he went 120 minutes against D.C. United in the Knockout Round win just three days prior, and starting in a 4-4-2 with Patrick Mullins alongside Gyasi Zardes.

While Higuain made all the difference in the second half, the change in formation did exactly what it was supposed to. Columbus was able to keep the game scoreless, while creating a few chances until Higuain was ready to check in the game, fresh, at halftime.

Interestingly, the only other time this year, Crew SC started in a 4-4-2 was against the Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena in a 3-2 win.

Jonathan Mensah’s big day

Federico Higuain is going to get all the headlines from this game, and rightfully so, but center back Jonathan Mensah was equally as important for the Black & Gold. Jonathan took his game to another level in this one. The defender made tackles, clearances and blocks from the opening whistle and frustrated the New York attackers all game long.

Jonathan has come a long way since he joined Columbus before last season. The center back struggled for the first half of the year but got stronger as the season went on and was a big part of Crew SC’s run to the Eastern Conference Final in 2017. He is playing at a high level in the postseason once again.

What’s next

Consider this halftime. The second leg of the Eastern Conference semifinal will take place on Sunday at Red Bull Arena. Crew SC walks into that game with a 1-0 advantage. One road goal would more or less kill off this series.