With just eight games remaining, Columbus Crew SC is holding steady in third place in the Eastern Conference standings with 38 points. D.C. United remain at the top of the table with 44 points.
While they trail second-place New York Red Bulls by merely one point, the Red Bulls have two games-in-hand. Columbus has a four-point edge over fourth-place Toronto FC (34 points), although they also have two games-in-hand on the Crew SC. New England Revolution (34 points) and Montreal Impact (28 points), round out the top-six playoff positions heading into the homestretch.
One constant with Major League Soccer is change, or at least a tweaking of the rules throughout the season. This year, the playoff format gets a nominal change that, would the teams finish as they are presently, see Columbus in the best possible position (third place).
With the top-two teams in either conference getting first-round byes, with an automatic advancement to the conference semi-finals, it’s a single elimination round for the remaining teams. Third place would play sixth place and fourth would play fifth. The third and fourth place teams would also get the financial and/or psychological advantage of playing at home.
Both from a competitive and financial standpoint this scenario gives Columbus an advantage. It gives them the best chance of advancing by playing the statistically worst Eastern Conference playoff team with the added benefit of selling more tickets to an extra home game.
With five of their last eight games on the road, it’s a tough stretch for Crew SC to close out the season. What plays in their favor is the fact that they’ve settled into a bit of a rhythm, playing with a touch more consistency, especially on the road.
“The first thing I look at is that our form away from home has improved over this last half of the season, and we feel confident that we can get results on the road now,” Sporting Director/Head Coach Gregg Berhalter told the team’s website. “Now we have the opportunity to do so with five games being away from home, so it’s a good opportunity for us to prove it.”
Their form over the last six games amounts to three wins and two draws, with the lone loss coming at the hands of Orlando City FC. One of their three wins came on the road in Colorado. For the most part, they are finding the wherewithal to either draw or beat their opponents. This speaks to not only their mentality, but also to an ever-increasing depth among the 18.
“We’re a team that has some continuity right now, we’ve gotten some guys that are gelling with the team that we got mid-summer,” Ethan Finlay told the team’s website. “When you get that kind of a team that you can get 14, 15, 16 guys deep, coming off the bench and helping you out every game, it’s tough to beat.”
While MLS has yet to adopt the FIFA international window observed by all of the other top leagues worldwide, the Crew SC will be without the services of potentially eight of its players for the September 6 match versus FC Dallas.
Kei Kamara (Sierra Leone), Harrison Afful (Ghana), Cedrick Mabwati (Democratic Republic of the Congo), Justin Meram (Iraq), Kevan George (Trinidad and Tobago), Sergio Campbell (Jamaica), Wil Trapp and Ben Swanson (United States) are all slated to play for their national teams.
The impact of these players missing even one game is significant. Combined, they are responsible for more than half of Columbus’ goals this season and 14 assists. Combined, they have played 74 games, with 62 starts among them. Kamara leads the way, league-wide, with 18 goals and is the frontrunner for the Golden Boot.
It’s not easy to replace that production, but the club will have the services of Argentine defender Gaston Sauro, signed in the most recent transfer window. The 25 year-old Sauro was on hand last weekend when the club came-from-behind to beat Sporting Kansas City at Mapfre Stadium 3-2. He could be thrust into the lineup as soon as this weekend.
“If it’s not this weekend, hopefully it’s next weekend,” Sauro told the team’s website. “The important thing is to try to help out the team in the best form possible, and that’s what we’re concentrating on.”
Columbus controls their destiny in regards to postseason play. They hope to avoid their less-than-stellar playoff form of one year ago. The MLS playoff format and their continuing improvement on the pitch could see them go a bit deeper than expected this year.