Julius James is on his fourth team in his five MLS seasons and has yet to experience the postseason.
That’s why the Columbus Crew defender hopes his first playoff game Thursday at Colorado (10 pm ET; streamed LIVE on MLSsoccer.com, TSN2 in Canada) isn’t his last this year.
After time with Toronto FC, Houston and D.C. United before joining the Crew in February, James is going to the playoffs in less than an ideal situation, since Columbus fell into the single-elimination wild card as the ninth of 10 qualifiers due to this past Saturday’s 3-2 loss at Chicago.
“You win or go home,” he said. “Everybody wants to get to the promised land, and we definitely do.”
The first step to the MLS Cup differs from the recent format, when eight teams qualified and the first rounds were two-game, aggregate-goal series. Unlike what the teams face Thursday, one mistake in those series usually wasn’t fatal.
In 2008, the Crew tied Kansas City 1-1 in the first leg before winning 2-0 at home to advance to the knockout Eastern Conference Championship, where they beat Chicago 2-1. The Crew then beat New York 3-1 to win the MLS Cup.
The following season, the Crew opened the playoffs with a 1-0 defeat at Real Salt Lake but rallied to take a 2-0 lead in Crew Stadium before RSL scored the next three goals to eliminate the stunned defending champions.
A similar pattern emerged in 2010 – the Crew lost 1-0 at Colorado, won the home game 2-1 to tie the aggregate but eventually lost on penalty kicks.
“Last year, we went [to Colorado] knowing we have a home game after,” captain Chad Marshall said. “You kind of sit back and defend and take the pressure and hope to get out of there with a tie or maybe sneak a win.”
There’s no safety net of a home match this time around.
“This game we have to be all out,” Marshall said. “We have to go for the win. There’s no sitting back. We have to be ready from the start.”
On Monday, coach Robert Warzycha was adamant that midfielder Danny O’Rourke would start vs. Colorado despite a troublesome left knee. A day later, he hedged his bet and said Tony Tchani, who has not played since July 9 because of his knee problems, could be in the mix along with rookie Rich Balchan.
O’Rourke went through warm-ups on Tuesday after receiving a cortisone shot the day before then was told to rest by the coaching staff.
“With Danny, we don’t know what it’s going to be,” Warzycha said.
O’Rourke or Balchan may replace holding midfielder Kevin Burns in a tactical move, while Tchani might take the spot of red-card suspended Emmanuel Ekpo in the more advanced central midfield role. The problem is Burns is the only one without injury or fitness concerns, especially at altitude. Balchan has endured groin problems and Tchani underwent knee surgery two months ago.
“[Tchani] is not 90-minutes fit, but he’s such a good player, it would be nice to have him on the field for as long as he could go,” Warzycha said.