ATLANTA – Before one of the biggest matches of their lives, manager Gregg Berhalter passed along one message to his Columbus Crew SC squad: “Play to the moment.”
What a moment it was. In front of an MLS playoff record crowd – one that, at one point, lit the stadium with cell phone flashlights beaming – Berhalter’s side did exactly what he asked of them.
Crew SC, facing off-field adversity with questions surrounding the team's future, came up aces in the game's biggest moments, despite requiring a penalty shootout to break a 0-0 draw. The manager said he knew his team was up for it as soon as the game kicked off.
“I thought, the first 10 minutes of the game, we were excellent,” Berhalter told reporters after the match. “I thought we controlled the game and gave us the start we needed. We kind of took the crowd out of it a little bit. They’re a high-flying team and like to put you under pressure really early, and when we controlled the first 10 minutes, it really set the tone for the match. “
Of course, what Berhalter and the rest of the players didn’t know at the time is that there would be another 110 minutes to play. Wil Trapp, the Columbus native and team captain on the night, said that with all the talk that’s been surrounding the team, the squad had all the motivation they needed to push through.
“We relish the idea of knocking people off, and if you want to doubt us, if you want to not believe that we can come in and make some noise, then we’ll see what happens," Trapp said in a joyous Columbus locker room. “It’s more of a motivation tactic than anything, and our group did an excellent job of rallying together and fighting for each other. “
Columbus players and management spoke after the game with an edge – that of a team that felt it had been doubted. Berhalter praised his team’s ability to use those feelings in their favor.
“That’s why we play the game. It’s 11 guys vs. 11 guys,” he said. “We pulled the old tape measure out and did the Hoosiers on them. It’s a same-sized field for both teams. We don’t pay attention to that. I think we’ve been underdogs for most of the year and that’s fine.”
That motivation won’t dissipate any time soon.
“We wanted to do this for the fans of Columbus,” said Berhalter. “With that emotion involved in soccer, with the history the club has, we’d love to go out and keep winning for the fans. “