COLUMBUS, Ohio – The Columbus Crew have four games to state their playoff case. But there is little margin for error, with the gap between themselves and Houston at just one point as the battle for the final spot in the Eastern Conference heats up.
As the Crew prepare for their first test Saturday against Philadelphia (7:30 pm ET, streamed LIVE online), here are a few things needed to continue the season going past the Oct. 28 finale vs. Toronto FC:
DO keep feeding the ball to Federico Higuaín in dangerous spots. As obvious as it sounds, there have been times during the current stretch of three losses in four games that opponents concentrated on forcing Higuaín to the outside where they feel he is less of a factor.
“I don’t worry about him,” head coach Robert Warzycha said. “He’s smart enough to find the space.”
Higuaín also appears recovered from a sore foot that hampered him recently, one major reason he was held scoreless in the past four games after getting three goals and six assists in his first five matches.
DON’T tinker with the backline. It’s crunch time and Warzycha still has not settled on the back four, or defensive midfielders for that matter. While it’s nice to have options, there needs to be a point where the defense is set and cohesive.
Julius James has moved into the central defense for now with Chad Marshall, and Josh Williams has gotten the call over Nemanja Vukovic at left back opposite mainstay Sebastián Miranda on the right.
Carlos Mendes, who has 10 starts, could return from a hamstring strain as early as next week to challenge James, plus Williams and Danny O’Rourke are in the mix there as well.
The Crew are not allowing many chances, but the ones they do result in prime scoring opportunities.
“We’re making silly mistakes and not tracking runners,” midfielder Chris Birchall said. “It’s not just the defenders. It’s the midfielders. It’s everyone’s fault.”
DO a better job of holding the lead. In their past two road games, the Crew opened the scoring by the 15th minute but quickly relinquished the advantage in losses to New York and Chicago.
“It’s very shocking when we are winning and within 15 minutes we are losing,” midfielder Milovan Mirosevic said. “We need to show that maturity.”
DON’T abandon the possession game. Columbus get in trouble when they just knock the ball downfield and hope Higuaín or Jairo Arrieta – six goals in 14 games – can work some magic.
“We’re creating chances,” midfielder Dilly Duka said. “We need to finish and have a little luck on our side.”
The Crew also need to find a killer instinct.
“It would be nice to be [up 3-0] at halftime sometime,” goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum said.
They have led by two goals only four times this season, the previous instance coming eight games ago against Toronto on Aug. 22.
DO win their three remaining home games. If that happens, getting at least a draw at D.C. United on Oct. 20 in the second-to-last game could be enough for a fifth straight postseason appearance.