Jeff Larentowicz scored in the 79th minute to secure a playoff spot for the New England Revolution with a 1-0 win over the Columbus Crew on Sunday night.
The victory in the final game of the MLS regular season gave New England (11-10-9) 42 points and a playoff berth at the expense of the Colorado Rapids, who fell from the ranks of the eight teams to qualify.
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Larentowicz’s first goal of the season came on a free kick from 20 yards. The midfielder bent his right-footed shot around the Crew defensive wall and past goalkeeper Kenny Schoeni.
“Fantastic free kick,” said New England coach Steve Nicol of the shot that launched his side into the playoffs for an eighth consecutive season.
“To come here on the last game of the season and needing points was never going to be easy,” Nicol said. “To get into the playoffs is huge.”
New England will face the Chicago Fire, against whom it tied two matches in the regular season.
Columbus (13-7-10) already had secured home-field advantage throughout the playoffs as well as the 2009 Supporters’ Shield, given to the team with the best regular-season record. The Crew joined D.C. United as the only teams to win the Supporters’ Shield in consecutive seasons.
Representatives from Columbus supporters’ groups handed the shield to Crew captain Frankie Hejduk in a ceremony after the game.
However, the loss was the Crew‘s second straight at home after a league-record 24-game unbeaten streak at Crew Stadium. Four of the Crew‘s seven losses this season have come in their last eight games.
Crew coach Robert Warzycha said the recent losses did not have him concerned entering the postseason.
“It’s not that we played bad in those games,” Warzycha said. “Sometimes it’s just tough to score a goal, especially at the end of the season when teams feel they have to play harder.”
Columbus, which has scored only one goal in its last four games, will face Real Salt Lake in the first round of the playoffs. The teams faced each other twice this season, each winning on its own turf.
Schoeni made his best save of the night to prevent an own goal in the seventh minute. Crew midfielder Emmanuel Ekpo’s attempt to clear a Revolution pass sent the ball zipping toward the Crew goal from close range, forcing Schoeni to dive to his left to keep the ball out of the net.
Schoeni was placed in the starting lineup just minutes before kickoff in place of regular starter William Hesmer, who said he has been battling the flu since last Friday.
“We know what the next four games are all about,” said Hesmer, who was in goal for the Crew during its MLS Cup-winning run last year.
Larentowicz tested Schoeni with a laser-like, low strike from 22 yards in the 28th minute, but Schoeni was able to gather it into his midsection.
The Houston Dynamo closed the regular season with a big win but didn’t get rewarded for it.
Houston scored two goals in a three-minute span midway through the first half Sunday, then held off Chivas USA 3-2 to finish second in the Western Conference.
The Dynamo (13-8-9) have 48 points along with Los Angeles, which held the tiebreaker over Houston for the top spot in the conference. The Dynamo will play the expansion Seattle Sounders FC in the first round, with the first leg likely to be played Thursday in Seattle.
Andrew Hainault, Dominic Oduro and Abe Thompson scored for Houston, which improved to 6-1-5 against Chivas in the regular season.
The Dynamo’s playoff scenario, however, did not please coach Dominic Kinnear, who said his team would have to deal with fatigue and travel concerns ahead of the playoff opener.
“I’m not worried about their fitness, I’m worried about how many games they’ve played,” Kinnear said. “Now we’re playing on Thursday and the league didn’t take into account that we played in CONCACAF on Wednesday. It’s unfair.”
Houston, which played a CONCACAF Champions League match in El Salvador on Wednesday, will stay in Southern California until Tuesday before heading north to Seattle.
Chivas USA (13-11-6) dropped to fourth in the West with 45 points and will play archrival Los Angeles at The Home Depot Center in the postseason for the first time. Chivas will be the home team for the first match Nov. 1, with the Galaxy hosting the return leg Nov. 8.
For Chivas, though, its playoff position is far from ideal.
“We definitely didn’t achieve our goals. The Western Conference championship would have been the first goal we’d set out for,” defender Jonathan Bornstein said. “Even with five games left to go, if we… would have beaten New York and San Jose, we would have done it but we tied both games and we had so many chances and we don’t put away goals.”
Failing to capitalize on its chances hurt Chivas again Sunday. The club had three shots in the first 22 minutes but two of the attempts – by Justin Braun and Maicon Santos – went right to Houston goalkeeper Pat Onstad.
Instead, it was Hainault who opened the scoring for Houston in the 26th minute after Ryan Cochrane headed a corner kick to the front of the net.
Three minutes later, Brad Davis slipped a ball in the middle of the field as Oduro raced into the penalty area unmarked. He beat Zach Thornton from 15 yards to make it 2-0.
“We got the goal and it kind of gave us some confidence and a boost of energy,” Kinnear said. “We get a second goal and the confidence grows from there.”
Thompson padded the lead in the 52nd minute before Chivas answered in the 59th, when rookie Michael Lahoud scored his first MLS goal.
Chivas got within a goal on Eduardo Lillingston’s penalty kick in the 88th minute but could not find an equalizer down the stretch.
Chivas USA coach Preki Radosavljevic said his team was unfortunate not to walk away with something from Sunday’s match.
“The way we played, the way we fought, our energy, hopefully they will get rewarded because there was only one team on the field who played soccer, there was only one team on the field who had chances and that team lost,” he said. “Quite a few times the game can be cruel. We are not putting our head down.”