COLUMBUS, Ohio — Columbus Crew head coach Gregg Berhalter took a pretty big risk in Sunday afternoon. His squad was gassed after a gruelling 120 minute showdown in D.C. on Thursday night and some decisions needed to be made to make sure his team didn’t tire out on him at the wrong moment.
The biggest of those decisions was to leave star attacking midfielder Federico Higuain out of the starting eleven. The Argentinian played for all 120 minutes and scored two goals in the win. He’s not exactly the type of player that rides the bench for the first half of an important playoff game.
However, Higuain came on after the break and truly changed the game. After a very cagey first half, the Crew came out with some extra energy in the second. The majority of that was due to having their best player coming on with fresh legs.
It was a difficult change for Berhalter to make, and he almost went another way with it after talking to Higuain before the match.
“I think he actually recovered really well and was in a position to potentially start the game,” Berhalter said. “But we felt that we needed something else in the first half. We needed power. We needed to stretch them. We needed to open them up. We needed to really get after them in the first half. Thinking about will he be able to maintain that for 90 minutes. So we took a gamble. We don’t normally do that.”
Well, the gamble worked. Despite a flurry of Red Bull corners in the first half that required a rather lucky save off Zack Steffen’s face, the game was scoreless after 45 minutes and the opportunity to introduce Higuain presented itself. Once he was on, it took less than 15 minutes for him to create a dangerous chance and only 16 minutes for him to assist on the lone goal of the game.
“To have him fresh for the second half was really key,” said midfielder and captain Wil Trapp, who credited Higuain with creating the goal thanks to his fantastic vision and passing ability.
“He’s an outlet,” Trapp later added when asked about Higuain’s affect on the team. “He’s a guy that we always look to because of his quality, his ability to slow the game down, create tempo and make the right passes at the right time. I mean, you see the goal and it’s an eyes in the back of the head type of pass and it’s perfect. I mean you couldn’t have drawn it up better.”
Higuain was alright with the decision, even though he always wants to be on the field. He was well aware of his physical condition after Thursday’s marathon and he also know the type of energy he could bring midway through the game.
“It was a difficult test for me, last Thursday,” he said, “having played for 120 minutes. I’m not a 25-year-old guy anymore.”
He was tired even after a fast-paced 45 minute shift, but it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for him, or anyone else. The quick turnaround showed had an effect on all parts of his game, but the playoff intensity was what kept him going.
“It’s normal,” he said. “It’s everybody, not just me. It’s not easy when you play games at this level, in this moment, playoff games. It’s not just about running. It’s your brain, it’s your heart, it’s your body. It’s everything.”
As any coach would be, Berhalter is happy to have a guy like Higuain that can come on and change games the way he did on Sunday. It leads to wins in the playoffs and, just as importantly, entertainment for fans.
“It’s nice to see,” Berhalter said. “He has a special ability. He does things that a lot of people can’t do. And it’s nice to see. The game is about entertainment, and it’s nice to see a guy that the fans can come watch and he can do things that they can appreciate. Aside from that, you take his workrate, you take his defensive pressing, and those type of elements and he’s a handful.”
The Crew will look to defend their 1-0 lead in the second leg of this series next Sunday at Red Bull Arena. Not much will change for them in that game, at least from an energy and intensity standpoint. Each and every one of those players knows what’s at stake right now, especially Federico Higuain.
“We’re playing with heart and with high intensity,” the Argentinian concluded. “This is the playoffs, it’s not about tactics, it’s not about fancy football. It’s about every single ball. We’re doing good. I hope we can keep going this way.”