OBETZ, Ohio—When Columbus Crew SC play host to the New York Red Bulls in Sunday's first leg of the Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference Championship of the (5 pm ET; ESPN, ESPN Deportes), it will mark the fourth time the teams have met this season.
And if the three previous matchups are any indication, the teams could be in for a tight affair.
They split the season’s first two matches at MAPFRE Stadium, each earning a 2-1 win, and the Red Bulls took another 2-1 win at Red Bull Arena in October.
But Crew SC head coach Gregg Berhalter says he doesn’t think those games have anything to do with Sunday’s match.
“They were three completely different games,” he said. “In the first one, their press caught us by surprise. In the second one, our play caught them by surprise. In the third, they took advantage of some mistakes after what I felt was a very good start. To me, it’s going to be interesting how both teams react and what the mindset of both teams are.”
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That mindset will be crucial.
New York’s high press disrupted Crew SC’s attempts to build out of the back. Yet Berhalter suspects the Red Bulls, like many away teams this season, might come to Columbus with a more conservative approach.
“For us, it’s figuring out, are they going to come out and press us?" Berhalter said. "Are they going to step up high, or are they going to sit back? I tend to think, at our place, they’re going to sit back a little bit. But you never know. They have a clear playing style, and I would expect them to carry through with it.”
If the press does make an appearance, Columbus believes they can beat it.
“When we’re at our best, we can play through pressure,” said midfielder Wil Trapp. “We just have to be cautious because they’re very good at it. But as long as we can break a couple lines early and get past that midfield pressure – which is really the heart of their team – and get at the back four, we can be dangerous.”
Trapp will likely prove an important part of the matchup, and one that was missing during the regular season:
Crew SC's midfield metronome missed all but two minutes of the teams’ first two matchups during his struggle with concussion symptoms, and was away with the US U-23 national team for the third.
But Berhalter isn’t letting Trapp’s absence serve as an excuse.
“They missed a couple guys – they missed [midfielder Dax] McCarty in the game we won, [center back Matt] Miazga in the game we lost there," Berhalter said. "They’ve been missing some guys also in the course of these games, and we have as well. So to me, it’s going to be a very interesting game.”
Crew SC’s hope will be that Trapp can help break the press if it comes. Usually positioned in front of goalkeeper Steve Clark and between the team’s center backs, Trapp’s distribution is key for Columbus’ possession.
“Being included in the lineup for this one is exciting for me,” Trapp said. “[I can] help a guy like Steve Clark out when we get pressed. We have a great relationship with our movements, as well as the center backs and outside backs.”
Whether New York bunkers or attacks, Berhalter says he’ll have his team ready.
“We’re prepared for anything,” he said. “We have to have a game plan in place to face both scenarios. If they sit back, it’s fine, we’ll be prepared. And if they press us, we’ll be prepared. So either way, it’s a game we’re looking forward to against a good opponent, the best opponent this year in the league.”