D.C. United-Crew Preview

D.C. United and the Columbus Crew are both a win away from securing a bye into the Eastern Conference semifinals, and while it might seem United has the inside track with a one-point advantage, it’s been more than eight years since it’s won in Columbus.

The clubs meet Sunday, and both should be in attack mode since a draw could send a darkhorse to the coveted second seed. The home Crew figure to be more on the offensive since United can potentially hold on with a draw, though Columbus will have to do it without two of its top offensive threats.

New York has already wrapped up the top seed, six points clear of D.C.’s 51. The Crew have 50, while Toronto has 49. A D.C.-Columbus draw allows for the possibility of Toronto winning at Montreal and passing both D.C. and Columbus for the automatic berth to the conference semifinal. Toronto would pass Columbus on points and United on wins, the first tiebreaker ahead of goal differential. All five mentioned clubs have already clinched playoff berths.

"The implications are clear. If we win, we’re second," Crew coach Gregg Berhalter told the club’s official website. "That’s going to be our focus. We know it’s not going to be easy, given the fact that D.C. doesn’t necessarily have to win to get second. It’s going to put us in a tough spot."

The Crew (14-11-8) gave themselves this chance with a 2-0 win in Toronto on Oct. 17 behind goals from Ethan Finlay and Federico Higuain. Finlay has eight goals and four assists in his last 17 matches after recording two goals with nine assists through his first 16 as his role, on the scoresheet at least, switched from distributor to finisher.

The Crew are 5-0-2 since last losing a home game to United on Aug. 18, 2007, but the clubs have split two matches in D.C. this season. Columbus won 2-1 on Sept. 19 behind goals from Finlay and co-MLS goal leader Kei Kamara, while United triumphed 2-0 on May 2.

Kamara, even with Toronto’s Sebastian Giovinco at 22 goals, will miss the match because of caution accumulation along with Higuain after both picked up yellow cards against Toronto. Berhalter remains confident, and his club holds an 11-3 scoring advantage in the last seven meetings in Columbus.

"If you look at our schedule over the last month, we’ve been playing playoff-style games," Berhalter said. "We had D.C. away, Portland at home, New York away and Toronto away, so we feel like we’re prepared moving into the playoffs and that’s a positive sign."

D.C. (15-12-6) made this race too interesting with a 0-5-1 span but has recovered some with consecutive wins since, including its most lopsided of the season with last Sunday’s 4-0 home final against bottom-of-the-table Chicago.

Fabian Espindola and Alvaro Saborio scored in both victories. Espindola has scored in two of his last four against Columbus.

"It’s huge," midfielder Chris Pontius said. "Columbus is a very good team, and they moved the ball very well against us last time. They spread you out, and they get in good spots. It’s a huge game for us. They’re a good team, their system just allows guys to plug in, and they all know their roles. It’s a crucial game for us, but we did our job (vs. Chicago) and put ourselves in a good position."

Road success, however, remains elusive. United has scored two away goals once this year, going 2-8-3 since with six markers.