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Crew SC vs. the Red Bulls is a tactical matchup of two of MLS’s best managers

The two teams will have to make adjustments to counter-act what their opponent does.

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

When Gregg Berhalter’s Columbus Crew SC debuted in 2014, the rest of Major League Soccer looked at what the Black & Gold were doing with shock. The offensive-minded, possession style of play was something straight out of Europe and certainly something no team in MLS had attempted.

While it took some time for Columbus to perfect Berhalter’s style, it was a success, even in year one when Crew SC returned to the playoffs for the first time in three seasons.

A year later, Jesse Marsch took over the New York Red Bulls. Shortly after his appointment, he adjusted his team’s focus to be more like the other Red Bull teams around the world with a high press that hopes to force turnovers.

Possibly for the first time in the history of MLS, there were two teams in the league that were committed to a very specific style of play and didn’t deviate from that style.

“They’re fantastic at what they do,” Berhalter said of the Red Bulls. “When you talk about not valuing the ball, the ball not being important, they want to create goal scoring opportunities without the ball. There’s the big difference right there. We want to create it with the ball, they want to create it without the ball... It’s a successful way to play, it’s aggressive and it’s certainly different than what we do.”

Then the two teams met for the first time under their new head coaches and the two contrasting styles went head to head. In early 2015, New York came to MAPFRE Stadium with the goal to not let Crew SC play its normal game. The Red Bulls strangely out-possessed the Black & Gold for much of the game, forcing the home side into uncharacteristic turnovers out of the back.

At 1-1 in the second half, it was defender Michael Parkhurt who gave the ball away in a bad position thanks to the pressure. Second half substitute Mike Grella, who now plays for Columbus, won the ball and chipped goalkeeper Steve Clark for the win.

It was a disappointing loss for Crew SC and a perplexing one for Berhalter and his staff.

“When the Red Bulls started doing what they did, I didn’t understand it,” the head coach admitted. “I didn’t. I was analyzing it and between when we played them the first time and the second time, we’re looking at it and we’re saying, ‘What just happened there? We’re a good build up team and we couldn’t do anything. They just kept coming at us. What was happening?’

“Then as we started breaking it down, we said here’s what’s happening, here could be the weaknesses, here are the triggers to their press and here’s what we have as our strengths.”

A few months later, the two sides met yet again. This time Berhalter had a better plan to deal with the New York pressure. Despite giving up an early goal, the Black & Gold battled back due to some uncharacteristic play.

The equalizing goal came from a long goal kick from Clark, who almost exclusively looked to play to one of his center backs or midfielder Wil Trapp. The goalkeeper found the head of forward Kei Kamara, who flicked the ball on to winger Ethan Finlay for the goal. The second goal also came from more direct play, with Federico Higuain playing a ball over the backline for Kamara who again found Finlay.

The 2015 season began a chess match between the two head coaches as they looked to counter-act what the opponent does. After Berhalter made his change, Marsch made tweaks to the Red Bulls’ play against Crew SC. Then it was Berhalter’s turn to adjust and the cycle has continued in each meeting.

“It’s been a series of adjustments and I think that what happens now is that both teams get to the point where we understand that if one of us committed to fully what we were doing, we’d be exposed. So now we make little changes,” Berhalter said.

Since those first two meetings between Berhalter and Marsch, Columbus is just 1-3-1 against New York in the regular season. But Crew SC did defeat the Red Bulls in the 2015 Eastern Conference Final 2-1 on aggregate, which included the fastest goal in playoff history for the Black & Gold from a direct long ball off the opening kickoff.

On Saturday, in front of a national television audience, these two will renew their Eastern Conference rivalry and the game will likely once again be decided on whose tactics work on the given day.

“I expect them to play long,” Marsch said this week. “They played New England and they played long, they played Kansas City and they played long, so I expect them to play long. We’ll be prepared for that, but we’ll also be prepared for any other nuances that they might throw at us. And we’ll have some things for them.”

While Berhalter wasn’t quick to admit that Columbus’ strategy will be to play long — instead saying that the New England Revolution don’t press like the Red Bulls and the team didn’t play long against Sporting Kansas City — he did say his team will have something ready for to counter what they expect from New York.

“I think it’s his way of saying that we may play differently, and he’s right. We may play differently,” Berhalter said.

Since Berhalter brought his possession style of play to MLS and Marsch came along a year later with the high pressure, the matchups between Crew SC and the Red Bulls have been some of the most compelling in MLS. On Saturday, fans should expect another tactical battle between two of the best managers in the league.

“It’s always fun when you play against a team that challenges what you do and then it’s always fun when you know that the things that they do challenge what you do. That’s often the case with New York City, can be the case with Atlanta, and I think it’s the case with Columbus,” Marsch said. “We’re going to go after the game and we’re excited for the challenge.”