Omar Cummings hit his first playoff goal to lead the Colorado past Columbus 1-0 in an MLS Wild Card matchup.
"It's a big confidence boost, and a start into the playoffs," Rapids defender Drew Moor said. "This was a tough game. We knew coming in that Columbus was coming in and going to play us extremely hard. This sets things up very nicely for us. These are never easy games, and I thought we showed great spirit and character."
With the temperature dipping just under freezing, the players' breaths hung in the air like fog. The host side had trouble breaking out of the haze in the opening quarter hour, but after that started to take hold in central midfield.
Columbus was without the suspended Emmanuel Ekpo, and Danny O'Rourke failed a late fitness test. That meant Tony Tchani made his first start for the Crew after knee surgery earlier in the year, partnering rookie Rich Balchan.
A terse opening stanza ended with an exclamation mark. With no stoppage time added, Cummings struck just seconds before the whistle. Brian Mullan, who has won the MLS Cup a record five times, cut the ball through the Crew backline with the outside of his right foot. Overlapping fullback Kosuke Kimura pulled it back into the box and Cummings finished off the slick move with his first-ever playoff goal.
"This is when you have to bring it all," Mullan explained. "The way the league is set up, it doesn't matter as much as you did through the course of the season, but once you get in the playoffs, anything can happen."
The Crew chased the match in the second half. Andres Mendoza wriggled free atop the box in the early going and slammed a left-footed shot off the crossbeam.
With 20 minutes remaining in the match, Rapids midfielder Jamie Smith took an awkward step and injured his knee, forcing a reshuffle. The Crew threw on MLS' all-time leading goalscorer Jeff Cunningham, but within a handful of minutes he left the match injured as well.
Columbus provided intense late pressure, but Colorado had the better chances hitting out on lightning counterattacks. In one, Mac Kandji pinged the ball off the upright.
"I honestly felt as if this game was a game that they hadn't anticipated," Colorado coach Gary Smith said. "There were a couple of other things that came into the equations, such as creativity. The overall feel of the group was to try and be as aggressive as we could be, but of course, making sure that we are getting bodies and being as creative as we can."
Colorado hung on for a 1-0 win to advance. Sporting Kansas City awaits in the Eastern Conference semifinal first leg on Sunday.
Tim Gardner contributed additional reporting.
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