The Crew reached a lofty spot in the Eastern Conference by defeating Portland last Saturday, moving into a share of first place for the first time all season.
To possibly maintain that position Columbus (8-6-7, 31 points) will have to go to greater heights in the next two MLS matches when they play at altitude Saturday at Real Salt Lake and Colorado on Aug. 5.
To prep for it all, they also host a friendly vs. English Premier League side Newcastle on Tuesday.
Whether the thin air is a factor is open for debate, but the facts are the Crew has struggled at both Rocky Mountain venues. Since their first trip to RSL’s Rio Tinto Stadium in 2009 they have lost two regular-season games, a playoff match and a Champions League quarterfinal in March by a combined 11-2 score.
The Crew lost a pair of 1-0 games to the Rapids last year in Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, including the first game of the conference quarterfinals. Colorado advanced in the aggregate series on penalty kicks following a 2-1 Crew win in the second leg.
So it doesn’t look good. But getting points out of the next two games before returning home to face New England on Aug. 13 would keep in character with expecting the unexpected from this team.
Many pundits had the Crew as a bottom feeder in the conference after a major overhaul that saw the departures of Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Frankie Hejduk, Gino Padula, Brian Carroll and others.
Coach Robert Warzycha is not surprised by the standings.
“When we made the changes in the beginning we said we are going to keep the core guys here and if they produce, we are going to be very good,” he said.
He also said the return of forward Emilio Renteria after missing 10 games due to injury gave the team a spark against Portland.
“We have a few more injured,” he said. “When they come back we are going to be a very good team.”
Whether that will be enough to compete for the top spot in the conference remains to be seen. Philadelphia have played two fewer matches, and the meetings with the Union Aug. 20 in Columbus and Sept. 17 at Philly could help determine the race.
The tight race could go down to the wire among several teams. The Crew are one point clear of New York but have two games in hand on the Red Bulls. The teams won’t meet again this year unless it’s in the playoffs.
Sporting Kansas City trail Columbus by five points with one game in hand, and they host the Crew on Sept. 28. Sporting began a nine-game homestand with a 4-2 win over Toronto FC on the weekend.
BY THE NUMBERS:
26 – Players used this season after midfielder Cole Grossman and goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum made their first appearances vs. Portland. The Crew used 24 in 2010.
6 – Rookies, including Grossman, who have played this year compared to just two last season.
3 – Goals by Eddie Gaven in 21 games this season after the game-winner vs. Portland and the number he had in 28 games last year.