Playoff push arrives for Columbus Crew
The eight-month grind known as the MLS Regular Season is drawing to a close. The Crew have five more games until the playoffs start at the end of October. But their playoff fate depends on these final five game.
The Black and Gold are sixth in the Eastern Conference, one point behind Houston and two behind D.C. United. The late August hot streak has brought the team back into the playoff picture, but the margin for error is very small.
Home Sweet Home
The Crew have three home games remaining, vs. Philadephia, Sportsing Kansas City and Toronto FC. Sporting KC is leading the East, Philly is struggling, and Toronto FC is currently the league's worst team.
While the coaches and players feel that the goal for each game is a win and three points, the schedule is set so they can grab them.
The Philadelphia Union's season went south early as they jettisoned head coach Peter Nowak in June. The change failed to turn around the season and they sit 8th in the East.
Likewise, Toronto made a June coaching change and are playing out another failed season with easily the worst record in the league. Anything less than three points against the Crew's trillium Cup rivals would be considered a failure.
Sporting Kansas City poses a big challenge and is a serious test for any playoff contender. They play well both at home and on the road. A victory against KC would boost the Crew's playoff chances and bolster confidence to the highest degree.
The Hard Road
While the home schedule is setup in the Crew's favor, the two away games are going to be challenging. Columbus face Chicago this weekend before heading to D.C. in October. Both games are against playoff contenders who are peaking.
Chicago is the league's hottest team and have shot up the standings to the 2nd best team in the conference. They have won 6 of their last 7 games and are 10-2-2 so far this year. Their last home loss was in July to the L.A. Galaxy.
The rise coincided with some new faces. Chris Rolfe returned to the team after three years overseas and has 6 goals after recovering from injury. Additionally, the club brought in designated players Sherjill MacDonald and Álvaro Fernández. MacDonald has 2 goals and an assist and Fernández has scored in 2 straight.
D.C. United, currently 4th, have let their young players lead the way. Guided by last year's MVP, Dwayne DeRosario, the youth movement is paying off. A fully healthy Chris Pontius leads the team in scoring and rookie Nick DeLeon has 5 goals on the season. Veteran Maicon Santos has a career-high 7 goals.
The key has been the continued outstanding play of DeRosario. He has 7 goals and 12 assists on the year, but the United will have to figure out how to play without him after he suffered an injury playing for the Canadian national team. D.C. has two wins without him, but any dip in form and they could quickly lose out on the last playoff spot.
A New (and an Old) Face to Lead the Way
Only five players remain from the Crew's 2008 MLS Cup championship team. If Columbus wants to extend their playoff streak to 5 years, they will have to lean heavily on some new faces.
Federico Higuain and Jairo Arrieta have played in high pressure games before.. Higuain's two MLS Player of the Week awards are a mark of his impact, having scored 3 goals and 6 assists since joining.
He missed last week's game in New York with a toe injury and the Red Bulls were able to run away with the game. If the team is going to make some noise heading to the playoffs, it will be the Argentinian leading the way.
In the back, Andy Gruenebaum is one of the longest tenured players on the team. Gruenebaum was key to keeping the team above water early in the season. He has 8 shutouts so far this season, going 6-0-2 in those contests. When allowing a goal, the Crew are a far more pedestrian 6-10-4.
Gruenebaum's first year starting has taken a toll with a back injury and a freak injury last week when he collided with the goal post. Without William Hesmer, the goalkeeping backup job falls to rookie Matt Lampson. He's filled in admirably when needed, but doesn't have the experience of Gruenebaum.
(Not Quite) Must Win
The Crew don't have a must win game yet, but they have little margin for error. They can't afford a slipup as they chase a playoff spot. D.C. United and the Houston Dynamo are just ahead in the standings and both have an easier schedule to close out the year.
The Black and Gold will have to earn their ticket to the playoffs by beating some of the best in the league. If they do that, they may just makes some noise after years of playoff disappointment.