Columbus Crew celebration - July 16, 2020

That wasn’t supposed to be so straightforward for Columbus Crew SC.

The New York Red Bulls pose one of the more unique tactical, physical and psychological challenges in MLS. Yet a Crew side with several lineup changes and three debutants – including teenage Homegrown Sebastian Berhalter making his first-ever professional start – managed the task with impressive efficiency Thursday night, dominating most aspects of the game in a 2-0 win that both qualifies them for the Knockout Stage of the MLS is Back Tournament and underlines their contender credentials.

For what it’s worth, Columbus technically top the Supporters’ Shield race – such as it is in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic’s suspension of the season – with 10 points from their first four matches of 2020. And though they’re in no mood to contemplate it just yet, they’re looking more and more like the team to beat in Florida.

“We don't think about whether or not we’re favorites,” said head coach Caleb Porter postgame. “We don’t think about any anything other than winning the next game. And I think that's the best way to approach a tournament.

“I've been in quite a few tournaments, I was in CCL [Concacaf Champions League] twice, certainly been in some College Cups in college and I’ve been in tournaments with the [US] U-23s,” continued the former Portland Timbers, University of Akron and 2012 US men’s Olympic team coach. “So I've made some mistakes in those tournaments, and I've learned from those mistakes, too. And so I think the big thing is, you just have to approach each game as it comes and not overthink it. And so that's what we're trying to do, we’re taking it a game at a time and we're approaching it really like it's a regular season, every single game. And funny enough, here we are and we're through [to the round of 16].”

RBNY trotted out the same starting XI that defeated Atlanta over the weekend and struggled for purchase most of the night, failing to direct a single shot on goal even after Crew goalkeeper Eloy Room was hobbled by cramps in the latter stages. Meanwhile the Crew found the balance between freshness and familiarity – Porter noted the role of analytics in identifying that sweet spot – and in the process flashed the depth that could help power a deep run in the next phase.

“It's just great to see when you call someone's name and they go on and they do a good job and the team wins,” said the coach. “It just builds more and more confidence in the locker room, it certainly gives us trust that we can go with different guys at different times and that's the type of squad that you need in MLS to win game in and game out.”

The attacking duo of Gyasi Zardes and Lucas Zelarayan – dubbed “ZZ Top” – were the most eye-catching performers and Darlington Nagbe continues to be masterful in central midfield. Yet Porter notably made a point to praise the dirty work his squad put in to make their adversaries look so ordinary, starting with captain and center back Jonathan Mensah, who notched 13 clearances to go with his seven recoveries.

“This was a different type of game for us. It's never easy playing New York, they're very effective in what they do well,” said Porter. “It's about direct play, first and second balls, winning aerial duels, and sometimes doing those things isn't necessarily the most fun thing, especially when you have a soccer team like we have, a team that wants to play on the ground, a team that wants to control games with the ball. But I have a lot of respect for New York and their ability to execute in a very effective way. We knew we were going to have to battle today. And that was what I was most proud of.”

Though they look like a good bet to stay atop Group E, the Ohioans are taking a businesslike approach to their group-stage finale vs Atlanta United on Tuesday (8 pm ET | TUDN, Twitter in US; TSN in Canada). And with good reason: A peek ahead to this tournament’s knockout bracket reveals that a first-place finish would drop the Crew into the opposite side of the bracket from the winner of Group F, which includes favorites LAFC and three other potentially tricky Western Conference teams.

“We're really, really happy with the two performances, we've been playing some really good soccer. But it's important that we just keep our feet on the ground and keep moving forward,” said defender Hector Jimenez. “The coaches have done really good jobs to prepare us week in, week out, and the most important thing is that we're going out there and executing. So hopefully we can carry that momentum into the next game and further in the tournament, and get what we put in.”