It’s that time of year when playoff-bound teams start to assert themselves, finding the wherewithal to close out games and set their sights squarely on postseason play.
DC United, firmly in cruise control atop the Eastern Conference table with 44 points from 26 games, has 3 wins and 1 loss in their last four matches. They are 13-5-8 with a goal differential of plus-6.
In second place are the New York Red Bulls with three wins and one draw in their last four, a plus-13 goal differential and 11-6-6 (39 points). They’ve conceded a mere 25 goals in 23 matches.
The Eastern Conference playoff race gets tighter for the next four teams. Columbus Crew SC (9-8-8, 35 points from 25 matches), New England Revolution (9-7-9, 34 points from 25 matches), Toronto FC (9-4-10, 31 points from 23 matches) and Montreal Impact (8-4-9, 28 points from 21 matches) round-out third through sixth place.
The Crew SC hosted the star-laden NYCFC at Mapfre Stadium Wednesday evening to a 2-2 draw in what was essentially a microcosm of their 2015 season.
After taking an early lead provided by Golden Boot frontrunner Kei Kamara (18 goals), they were unable to close out the game. The all-too-familiar defensive breakdowns seen throughout their season reared their head once again, allowing the first-year visitors back into the game.
What was a potential six-point swing turned into a point for each side, allowing the expansion NYCFC to stay in the playoff hunt, just seven points behind Columbus. Each team has nine games remaining.
Why does a Columbus side that, at least on paper, should not have any problem beating a team below them in the standings, find ways to not win?
“I think after we scored the goal,” said vice-captain Wil Trapp, “maybe we just relaxed a little bit too much and then into the second half it just wasn’t the right mentality overall. We still did some good stuff but we can be more of a killer mentality.”
Their inability to close out the game was reminiscent of the three-goal lead they had over Toronto FC on July 26, only to allow Toronto back into the game resulting in a 3-3 draw. Lacking the fortitude to keep their foot on the gas has kept the Crew SC firmly within the pack jostling for position in the fast-approaching postseason.
The additions of midfielder Cedrick Mabwati, forward Jack McInerney and defenders Harrison Afful and Gaston Sauro have yet to make an impact for Columbus. Getting all four players acclimated and contributing to sporting director/ head coach Gregg Berhalter’s system is paramount if the Crew SC desires anything more than a first round playoff exit.
It’s not just scoring more goals that will help them, as they have 40 to their credit this season, placing them top in the Eastern Conference and second to the LA Galaxy (44) in the league. Tightening-up defensively, whether on set pieces or an opponent’s break out, is an area that has been sorely lacking for the majority of their season.
“We go over this stuff and there’s a spot at the top of the box that we’re supposed to be defending and it was guys not expecting the worst,” said Berhalter. “When you’re in that position, you expect the worst to happen, and that’s the ball falling right to that spot. We should’ve been in position.”
Berhalter has identified the issues that seem to be plaguing the club this season. It’s in getting his players to execute his game plan for the full 90 minutes — that has yet to come to fruition.
“I would say we’re working on it,” Berhalter said. “We’re not happy with A) that we’re not scoring enough on set pieces and B) that we’re conceding. If you’re not scoring, you definitely can’t concede and we’ve done that lately. It’s work and it’s attention to detail and it’s desire. You’ve got to want to win that ball and have the heart and desire to clear the ball out of the area.”
In his second year at the helm of Crew SC, Berhalter is slowly making headway with his squad. This has to be considered a work in progress, although not advancing the collective mindset into one of hunger and a killer mentality will undermine confidence in the club, as a whole.
Are they able to compete with the star-laden teams of Major League Soccer? The answer is yes. But, consistency is not their strong suit at this juncture. Attention to detail moving forward may possibly lead to a deeper run in the post-season. And that, in essence, is what they are playing for.