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Tested, Crew SC has passed the depth test so far in 2018

The Black & Gold showed to be a team in the truest sense of the word last week.

MLS: Chicago Fire at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday night’s 3-0 win for Columbus Crew SC over the Chicago Fire was the best performance of the year for the Black & Gold. Not only did Crew SC assert the team’s dominance over a rival and Eastern Conference opponent on the score sheet, but demoralized a Fire group that walked off the field with their Dalmatian tails between their legs.

“That was part of the game plan, just really trying to use our fitness as a strength,” head coach Gregg Berhalter said after the win. “This is a very fit team and we wanted to take advantage of that. We knew that if we could keep running, we knew we would get to a point where it would be too much, and I think we got to that point tonight.”

Berhalter is right. By the second half of the match, it was clear Chicago had run out of gas and it allowed Columbus to take over the game and create even more scoring chances than the three goals scored. But this goes beyond just fitness.

Both teams were coming off a busy stretch of three games in eight days. But while the Fire played largely the same lineup the first two games, and rotated some in the third match, the Black & Gold had only two players — goalkeeper Zack Steffen and forward Gyasi Zardes — start all three contests. That squad rotation clearly had the desired impact.

“I think we had a game plan and the game plan was to tire them out,” winger Niko Hansen said. “And I think we found way more spaces because they were tired running.”

Over the match congested week, Crew SC played down a man for 75 minutes at the Seattle Sounders, yet came out with a draw. The midweek game — the one Columbus usually struggles with the most — resulted in a 1-0 victory over the Philadelphia Union and then the Black & Gold came home to handle Chicago.

Through all of that, the depth of Berhalter’s team was tested and the head coach learned that he has quality beyond the starting 11, or even the usual seven players on the bench, that can be counted on in a number of positions.

“When I look at what this group is made of, you think about Wednesday, us having the youngest team in club history, and then tonight we had one of the older teams in club history. It just shows that everyone can step up. Everyone can play a part,” he said.

In the first game at Seattle, Berhalter elected to not travel regular starters on the backline in Jonathan Mensah and Harrison Afful and central midfielder Artur, yet Josh Williams, Hector Jimenez and Ricardo Clark stepped in and helped the disadvantaged Crew SC get a hard-fought road result.

While Jonathan, Afful and Artur returned on Wednesday against the Union, Pedro Santos missed out after receiving the red card and playmaker Federico Higuain was rested. In stepped second-year player Niko Hansen and rookie Luis Argudo to help Columbus to the victory.

In the final game of the difficult stretch, Williams stepped back in for Lalas Abubakar, Jimenez came in for Milton Valenzuela at left back and Higuain and Santos returned. But Santos quickly had to be substituted after a hamstring injury and in stepped Hansen on the opposite wing from Mike Grella, who was making his first start for Crew SC.

“It’s vitally important that we have more than 11 players playing minutes,” Berhalter said. “And we made a good effort to make that happen over the last month and we feel like we have some guys in good spots, in terms of their fitness and their contribution to the team.”

Perhaps most surprising was the resting of captain Wil Trapp in the final game against the Fire. Trapp has been a key cog to Berhalter’s system over the last four years and has rarely missed time when healthy, playing all but 93 minutes a year ago and starting every match.

Moving him to the bench, and not even bringing him in to the match, shows a different kind of depth at an important spot for Crew SC.

“I think we’re very comfortable at the depth we have when you look at Mohammad, Ricardo, Wil and Artur,” Berhalter said. “We needed to not just talk about it, but show it. And it’s not easy taking your captain off; it’s not easy making that decision. But we felt this is the best thing for the team in the long run.”

The addition of Clark, who started in two different roles at either end of the eight days, has given this team more depth in central midfield than it has had in some time. And while the team has boasted depth in the past, this year it appears to be in more crucial roles, such as along the backline and across midfield.

For Crew SC, it will now be about continuing to use that depth to the best advantage of the team as it progresses throughout the season. This means picking and choosing when to give players rest, which is easier to do now that the pieces behind them have been tested and proven themselves.

This begins this weekend when the Black & Gold travel to the New England Revolution. That contest is the start of a stretch where Columbus plays six of its next seven against teams currently above the playoff line. The seventh team is defending MLS Cup champions Toronto FC.

As one difficult stretch ends, another begins for Crew SC and the team, likely most of the roster, will be challenged to rise to the occasion.

“I think that’s why you build a team, that’s why you build a squad, you need guys stepping up at the right moments and making an impact,” Berhalter said. “Our games are going to get difficult if you look at this stretch and our focus is on taking one opponent at a time and you try to beat them.”