Columbus Crew SC continues its journey through the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs with Leg 1 of the Eastern Conference Championships against the New York Red Bulls on Sunday, Nov. 4 at MAPFRE Stadium.
Columbus advanced 2-2 (3-2 PKs) over D.C. United on the road on Thursday, Nov. 1. After a brace from Federico Higuaín, both sides found themselves level at 2-2 following 120 minutes of action. In the penalty kick shootout, three Crew SC conversions and two saves from goalkeeper Zack Steffen and three conversions from the Black & Gold secured Columbus' second consecutive Conference Semifinal berth.
Higuaín's brace marked the first of his postseason career, bring his career playoff goal total to four in 12 appearances. Since joining Crew SC in 2012, Higuaín has made 12 MLS Cup Playoff appearances (all starts) and has provided four assists.
Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter spoke on Higuaín's leadership and his embracement of playoff pressure.
"I think when you look over the course of his time here, he's been a guy that, in big games, performs," Berhalter said. "I read about other guys commenting; this is a time of year where he really shines and he does it on both sides of the ball."
Higuaín's four tallies stand tied with Kei Kamara for third-most postseason goals in Crew SC history, ranking behind only Brian McBride (9) and Stern John (8).
Crew SC went 1-1-0 against D.C. United in the regular season and saw success on Thursday through a variety of contributors, totaling six shots on goal from four players while limiting D.C. to four shots on target. Notably, D.C.'s Paul Arriola, Luciano Acosta, and Wayne Rooney totaled one shot combined.
As for the Red Bulls, Columbus went 1-0-1 against New York in the regular season, winning 3-2 at Red Bull Arena on July 28 after drawing 1-1 at MAPFRE Stadium on June 9. In that July road match, Patrick Mullins recorded his first assist and goal with Crew SC.
Columbus is 4-1-0 all-time against New York in the postseason, last facing the Red Bulls in the 2015 Eastern Conference Championship. Justin Meram record the fastest playoff goal in Club history just nine seconds into Leg 1 of that series, as Crew SC held on for a 2-0 win before advancing to MLS Cup, 2-1, on aggregate.
New York ended the 2018 regular season on a five-match win streak and boasted the best goal differential (+29) in MLS, in addition to top-five marks in goals (62) and shots on target (186) and the League's fewest goals conceded (33).
The Black & Gold, meanwhile, have tallied five goals in their last two matches and are 11-2-4 at MAPFRE Stadium this season. Additionally, Crew SC has faced the third-fewest shots on goal at home (56) while Gyasi Zardes' 17 goals at home rank first in the League.
When asked about the match-up, Berhalter was straightforward about New York's success this season and the task at hand considering the short turnaround.
"They are good all around," Berhalter said. "They broke the record for most points in a season...Last year you guys were talking about Toronto was the greatest ever in MLS, in the history of MLS. And now Red Bull has broken that record...It's gonna be a tough game, a tough series."
Forward Bradley Wright-Phillips leads the Red Bulls with 20 goals while Kaku holds a team-high 14 assists.
Sunday's match is scheduled to kickoff at 3 p.m. ET and will be aired on ESPN and ESPN Deportes.