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Berhalter’s gamble was crucial for Crew SC’s advantage

The coach tried a different approach against the Red Bulls on Sunday and his courage was rewarded.

MLS: Eastern Conference Semifinal-New York Red Bulls at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Gregg Berhalter has been linked with the open coaching position with the U.S. Men’s National Team for the last months and last Sunday Columbus Crew SC’s head coach showed why he’s been considered by many the primary option to take over for the USA.

Coaching isn’t about always putting the best players on the field and Berhalter had a mastery performance in the Black & Gold’s 1-0 victory over the New York Red Bulls in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday afternoon.

Even by saving Federico Higuain, who scored a brace on Thursday against D.C. United in the Knockout Round, until the second half, Berhalter was still able to field a competitive lineup against the best team in Major league Soccer regular season history.

It was a strong message about the coach’s knowledge of his squad how to get the most out of each player.

“I think with all of the guys, it was assessment,” Berhalter said after the game. “You come up with scenarios and you plan. You go through all different scenarios of what could happen in the game. In this instance, we felt comfortable knowing what we can do in the first half, knowing how we can hurt them in the first half without necessarily needing to score a goal.”

The plan was simple, but risky. By taking arguably the team’s best player from the lineup, Berhalter took his chances in trying to force the Red Bulls into a different playing system as the Crew had an unusual forward pairing up front and Justin Meram and Luis Argudo playing out wide in a 4-4-2 system.

The strategy, described by the coach as “a gamble,” paid off when Higuain entered the game after halftime, reverting the Crew to its traditional 4-2-3-1 system, and he led the team to the victory, with a fantastic backheel pass to Gyasi Zardes for the game-winning goal.

“We needed something else in the first half,” the coach added. “We needed power. We needed to stretch them. We need to open them up. We needed to really get after them in the first half, and then thinking about will he (Higuain) be able to maintain that for 90 minutes.

“It was a gamble. We normally aren’t adventurous with decisions like that but I felt it could help us win the game to have him fresh in the second half. Patrick (Mullins) did a good job in the first half and then Pipa came in and made a difference.”

The plan, of course, wouldn’t work if it wasn’t for Higuain. The 34-year-old veteran not only accepted to come off the bench, but was also smart enough to bring everything he had in the 45 minutes he was on the field.

And all of that after playing 120 minutes less than 72 hours before.

“It was a difficult test for me after playing 120 minutes last Thursday,” the Argentinean remarked. “I am not 25 years old. So I think I said no matter who plays in this game we know the guys will step up.

“We work hard all season for this moment. Arriving at this moment you have to compete. Again, at this moment it is not about tactics or fancy football, it is about competing: Work hard, don’t be soft, and execution. I think we are doing good in those things.”

So, could Berhalter be thinking about something similar to the second leg at the Red Bull Arena? Well, we’ll have to wait until Sunday to know.

“That’s how it’s scripted, and it happened to work out, but it might not have worked out and there was a calculated risk that we had to take,” the coach noted. “Thankfully, it did work out. Thankfully, we got to halftime in a good position, and we can bring a quality player on with full energy. So, it happened to work out for us.”