By Justin Sousa
The New York Red Bulls fell to the Columbus Crew 1-0 in the opening match of their two-legged MLS Playoff Semifinal.
Unlike previous playoff matches, New York did not bunker into a defensive shell and look to hit their opponents on the counter attack. In fact, it was Columbus that played the more defensive of the two sides as they looked to ward off an energetic start to the match by the Red Bulls.
The best opportunity of the first half fell to the head of Tim Parker as the center back rose to meet a corner kick in the 26th minute. His shot struck the post and Zack Steffen’s shoulder before being cleared away by the Crew’s defense.
As possession remained in the Red Bulls’ favor, Patrick Mullins and Gyasi Zardes struggled to link on the counter. Tyler Adams held strong to his defensive duties as he tirelessly tracked down every loose ball that flew out of the offensive third.
At the start of the second half, Gregg Berhalter’s introduction of Federico Higuain threw the match up on its head. The Argentine wasted no time in wreaking havoc on the Red Bulls’ defense with tidy footwork down the wing and intricate link-up plays with Zardes through the middle.
It came as no surprise, then, when Higuain’s daring back heel flick assisted the Zardes’ game winning goal midway through the second half. It was impressive play by the Crew to change the point of attack before Milton Valenzuela played a surgical ball through New York’s defense.
At the other end of the field, Steffen stood on his head to prevent an equalizer. Minutes prior to Zardes’ goal, the Crew ‘keeper made a 40-yard dash to stop Daniel Royer from a free break on goal.
As time ticked away, the ball found its way to the feet of Kaku 20 yards from goal. The Paraguayan cut to his right foot before delivering a pin point cross to the head of Bradley Wright-Phillips. The glanced header seemed destined to find the back of the net, but Steffen, at full stretch, denied the Englishman his 10th career playoff goal with a phenomenal diving save.
Man of the Match
Rather unsurprisingly, Zack Steffen was pivotal to the Crew’s game plan tonight. The Red Bulls struggled to provide any true creativity to breakdown their defensive structure, but he was there to make crucial saves when called upon.