The last time Columbus Crew SC visited Red Bull Arena, the Black & Gold posted a three-goal first half en route to a 3-2 win on July 28, 2018.
Now, Columbus returns to Red Bull Arena as the only team in Major League Soccer to hold a multi-game unbeaten record against the Supporters’ Shield winners.
Following a 1-0 win at MAPFRE Stadium in Leg 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Black & Gold improved their 2018 record to 2-0-1 against, statistically speaking, the League’s top defensive team.
“I think it says a lot about the team,” said defender Milton Valenzuela on Crew SC’s shutout victory on short rest.
“I think it shows how committed we are and I think it says a lot about the type of character we have, the work that we are willing to do to be able to go out there, and on short rest, put out that type of performance and we just want to continue to do that.”
Forward Gyasi Zardes scored the game-winner – his 20th of the season – while goalkeeper Zack Steffen recorded his 11th clean sheet of the year. Earlier this week, Steffen was named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year while Zardes became the first player in Club history to earn the League’s Comeback Player of the Year award.
As with any shutout, defensive tactics proved key – starting with Zardes up top to Steffen as the last line of defense.
The Black & Gold limited New York’s possession to 44 percent, allowing two shots on frame and holding the Red Bulls to just under 61 percent in passing accuracy. The Red Bulls had lost only five games on the road during the regular season – tied for the fewest in the League – and had scored 26, a total good for fifth in MLS.
All in all, it was a showcase in collectivity and communication, according to Valenzuela.
“Yes I’m very happy with that performance and the rest of the team, because we were just that – a team,” Valenzuela said.
“We went out there and performed, and what we need to do as we head into Red Bulls is we need to continue to have the same type of attitude but get the little details right that maybe we got wrong this time and just continue to move ahead.”
After coming out with a 4-4-2, Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter subbed in midfielder Federico Higuaín for striker Patrick Mullins in the 46th minute. Just 15 minutes later, Valenzuela found a seam ending atop the 18-yard-box for a cutting Higuaín, who brought his defender with him and laying it off in open space for Zardes to tally the game-winner.
It was an example of preparation and anticipation from Higuaín and clinical finishing from Zardes, who in a testament to his clinicality and specialization, received only 18 passes to him in 90 minutes, compared to 19 to Higuaín in 45 minutes.
“We know [the Red Bulls] are very man-oriented markers,” Higuaín said after Crew SC’s 1-0 win. “I thought maybe the center back would be very close to me and I released the ball as I always do, I have to. It is my job, I am a number 10 – I have to do something different, if not it is not enough.”
Following 210 minutes of MLS Cup Playoffs action in a four-day span, Mensah attributed the collectiveness to game-planning and rising to the occasion.
“Like I said, playoff games are really tough cause you [can’t] lose and say ‘you got a couple of games left.’
“You lose [and] you’re going home. So you just have to take every play seriously and that’s what we did. They have a good team and we also believe in our team. We go out there and we compete.”
It will be a difficult challenge at Red Bull Arena, as New York sported the League’s best home-record at 14-2-1 in the regular season. Additionally, the Red Bulls have not conceded a goal at home since August 5.
However, the last time New York lost at home? July 28 against Columbus.
As for Crew SC, the Black & Gold continue to hold one of the League’s best road defenses with only 24 road goals conceded in the regular season, ranking fourth in MLS.
For those who are waiting for Mensah – who said he would dye his hair if Zardes scored a brace in the regular-season finale against Minnesota United FC – to adopt Gyasi’s look, you will have to wait till Dec. 8.
“I spoke to [Gyasi] and I told him he should just keep scoring, I’m going to keep defending for him and hopefully I do that in the MLS Cup Final.”
Crew SC kicks offs Leg 2 on Sunday, Nov. 11 at 7:30 p.m. ET at Red Bull Arena (FS1, Fox Deportes, CD 102.5 FM). Be sure to join the official Crew SC Watch Party, presented by Hornitos, at Short North Food Hall.