Expectation was D.C. United, but the Columbus Crew defied the odds and will play the New York Red Bulls in the MLS Eastern Conference Semifinal.
Dark Horse Columbus Face Red Bulls in Semis – PREVIEW
The first leg will be played at Mapfre Stadium in Ohio and expectations are that this will be a rough fixture given the history between the two sides. The last time they played, the Crew came away with a 3-2 win at Red Bull Arena in July.
The Crew have not been very prolific this year when it comes to scoring goals but they found a way to get it done against DC. Frederico Higuain turned back the clock and Justin Meram proved the be effective in breaking down the defense with the ball at his feet. New York is a different beast than DC, providing more talent and cohesiveness for the Crew to break down. Still, it is playoffs in New York where this team notoriously falters in big game scenarios.
“Is there frustration out there,” said head coach Chris Armas when discussing his team’s lackluster postseason performances. “We’re certainly not the only club that makes the playoffs and doesn’t hold a trophy at any sport in our country. We don’t feel frustration on the inside here. We feel a desire and a strong hunger to go after this but I do understand it.”
The Crew have been a club that has added to that frustration over the years. Both teams are 96ers and have met in the playoffs. Most recently it was in 2015 when the Red Bulls took the Supporters Shield, the Crew ended their run in the Eastern Conference Finals with two goals at Mapfre that put the team on their heels. The same thing could happen again given that Gregg Berhalter has successfully executed a bunker game plan against the high press in the past.
For New York to success they will need to heed the mistakes of the past and dance with what brought them. Former head coach Jesse Marsch had a tendency to shift away from what brought the team regular season success in high profile games. The movement through Kaku and relying on homegrown players like Derrick Etienne Jr. to come up in key spots will need to remain intact or the potential of failure will loom.
“We’re looking for that first MLS Cup,” said Armas. “How it actually plays out, facing teams in the playoffs, whether you’re home or away you could be facing a deeper block or a team that’s coming at you. We don’t know. We’ll have game plans and ideas for what games will look like. And part of us building in these last years, and specifically when I took over, was talking about how to be dangerous and comfortable pressing up high, maybe pressing from a more compact area and facing deeper blocks, what that could look like with the ball.”
PROJECTED STARTING XI:
New York Red Bulls: Robles; Lawrence, Parker, Long, Murillo, Adams, Davis, Etienne Jr., Kaku, Royer, Wright-Phillips
Columbus Crew SC: Steffen; Afful, Mensah, Sauro, Velenzuela, Artur, Trapp, Santos, Higuain, Meram, Zardes
Where to Watch: Sunday at 3PM on ESPN