It was apropos that the Crew were out of the country when their two-year reign in the Eastern Conference came to an end Thursday.
After all, their jet-setting ways may have factored in their decisive late-season swoon.
While the Crew were winning the last of six CONCACAF Champions League Group B games with a meaningless 4-1 triumph over Trinidad’s Joe Public, the New York Red Bulls were beating visiting New England 2-0 to clinch the East.
“They’ve got a great team,” Crew goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum said of the Red Bulls. “They did what they had to do at home. We had chances to win the East but we didn’t. We’re in the playoffs. Look at last year. You get in the playoffs and anything can happen.”
The Red Bulls finished with 51 points and have home-field advantage until the MLS Cup. The Crew can reach 50 points in Sunday’s season finale against Philadelphia in Crew Stadium.
Columbus had 49 points last season to captures a second-straight Supporters’ Shield.
“We still have the same core that won the (MLS Cup) in 2008,” Gruenebaum said. “Everybody knows that. We’ve had enough meetings. We’re done talking. We’re ready to play.”
The Crew held a six-point lead over New York (37-31) with 10 games left, but saw their lead evaporate once they resumed play in the Champions League on Aug. 18, coupled with the semifinal and final of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
New York were in neither competition and played eight fewer matches over the final 10 weeks as Columbus faded.
“Just because we haven’t played well this past month doesn’t mean all of sudden this team is bad,” Eddie Gaven said. “It’s just that things haven’t gone our way for whatever reason, but we still have that talent there. We still have that fight there and now we have to go out and show it.”
The Crew were winless in six games overall before Thursday’s result and are currently stuck on a 0-3-3 run in MLS play.
“It’s easy to sit back and say if we didn’t have that many games, who knows what happens,” Gruenebaum said. “It definitely makes a difference, but also these competitions are good in getting these guys games.”
The Crew played Champions League games in Mexico, Guatemala and Trinidad and had road games at D.C. United and Seattle in the Open Cup.
“We’ve had a lot of travel,” Gruenebaum added. “We held the lead in the East for a long time and maybe it was a bit of fatigue that cost us the top spot, but at the same time we’re not dwelling on it.”