But they exited the game stunned, as a second-half rally came up short in a 3-2 loss at Red Bull Arena.
Columbus raced out to a 3-0 lead in the first 31 minutes, before an own goal and then a tally from Daniel Royer gave the Red Bulls life late.
But in hindsight, the 5-1-3-1 formation used by Red Bulls head coach Chris Armas in the first half proved to be a curious decision. The Red Bulls have mostly stuck with a 4-2-3-1 in recent months after playing much of 2017 and the beginning of 2018 in a hybrid of the 3-3-3-1 or 5-1-3-1 formation.
Postgame, Armas discussed the formation as a reaction to the previous meeting between the teams, a 1-1 draw in Columbus on June 9. That game saw Crew SC hold a 1-0 lead and a 15-2 shot advantage in the first half before RBNY found an equalizer in the 57th minute and went on to control much of the rest of the match. Zack Steffen and Wil Trapp were notable absences for Crew SC in that match, with both away on international duty.
"We looked closely at Columbus in the last few weeks, and a lot of what we looked at was the last time we played them," he told reporters after the game. "Our typical 4-3-2-1, and their system and their style of play challenged us on that day. We thought we got exposed at their place that way. The second half of that game, if I remember, yeah, it was 5-1-3-1, the exact formation we started with tonight and we had to really put things on our terms at their place in that same structure."
But in spite of the adjustment, Armas believed the difficulties at home stemmed from being second-best in quality of play.
"Tonight was opposite. Sometimes, it's hard to explain it but when you're -- no matter what formation that we're playing in, if we're late to plays, a step late, if we're not up for that part of it, they can just pick you apart."
Crew SC head coach Gregg Berhalter did say his side was surprised by the set-up New York used, but ultimately adjusted well.
"I think the beginning of the game, the first half of the game, we had to make some adjustments based on how they were playing a different system and I think we adjusted really well," he explained. "We exploited the space in the empty middle and did a great job of keeping the ball and putting them on their heels.
"The second half, as they moved back to their traditional system, the focus was now on switching the field and I think we could have been a little more effective, you see the goals, both of them came on examples of when we could have switched field to break pressure off."
With the Red Bulls on short rest after a 1-0 win over D.C. United in Washington midweek, goalkeeper Luis Robles admitted, “It’s possible that fatigue played a factor; it’s possible that we came in a little complacent."
“Man, it was brutal," Robles said. "I don’t really have any reasons for it, it’s just we know internally it’s not good enough. We’re not necessarily going to point fingers at anyone or give any excuses, but the standards that we have here are high and that didn’t meet it so at the end of the day it was a big fail by us and we’ll learn from it.”