The Crew host the Rapids as the only Eastern Conference team left in the competition.
Colorado took the first leg thanks to a Pablo Mastroeni goal and probably should have scored one or two more in the first half, which could come back to haunt them at Crew Stadium on Saturday. The Crew, on the other hand, looked dire in the first 45 minutes of play, but picked up the pace in the second half and nearly had a few good chances to put themselves back on the board. The were unable to muster a goal, but the fightback indicates the team is far from out of this tie, especially playing the second leg at home, where they closed out the regular season with a convincing 3-1 victory over Philadelphia.
Robert Warzycha has a big decision to make with the talismanic Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s poor showing in Colorado raising a few questions. Last season, the Crew tactician sat Schelotto in the series against Real Salt Lake to disastrous results, but this time around, the Crew didn’t truly start to threaten until the Argentine veteran, who had very little impact on the game, had been substituted. Although he has the option of starting Jason Garey or Andres Mendoza up top alongside Steven Lenhart, Schelotto still has the quality to turn a match, and his set piece delivery is second to none. That will be the difference between the Crew’s use of a 4-4-2 or a 4-4-1-1 (which looks more like a 4-2-3-1 in attack), as the rest of the lineup will likely remain unchanged. Shaun Francis looked capable at left back in the first leg, and against the pacy Omar Cummings will certainly be the choice over Gino Padula. Eddie Gaven has looked most effective when paired in the center of midfield with Brian Carroll, but the lack of production from the Crew’s wingers means that Gaven could be shifted to the wings, with Adam Moffat coming in to the center of midfield, a move that would be more conducive to a 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1.
For Colorado, the lineup could depend on the fitness of Jamie Smith, the Rapids’ assist leader for the season, who missed the first leg through injury. If fit, he will start on the left wing, though Gary Smith might still be tempted to go with the more defensive-minded Wells Thompson, who started the first leg, should he want to adopt a more defensive approach while protecting a one-goal lead. Other than that, don’t expect too many changes to a Colorado lineup that has been very effective throughout the second half of the season. The 4-4-2 is the name of the game, with striker Omar Cummings drifting to the right and full-backs Anthony Wallace and Kosuke Kimura overlapping to provide support when Colorado is in possession. The defensive midfield pairing of Jeff Larentowicz and Pablo Mastroeni will look to break up any Columbus movement and distribute the ball with simple passes to initiate Colorado’s attacking moves.
For the Crew, a lot will depend on the production of Robbie Rogers and Emmanuel Ekpo, who have underperformed all year, but start on the wings due to a lack of other options. There’s no denying their knack for getting forward, and their speed and ability to beat a man are rarely in question, but they have a very tough time playing the final ball or finishing a move. If they can step up and keep the Colorado fullbacks pinned back, it could provide a major advantage for the Crew. The other big question for the Crew is which Guillermo Barros Schelotto shows up, the one that has provided crucial assists week in, week out and makes the Crew offense tick, or the one that is muscled off the ball and marked out of games.
On the flipside, the Rapids’ ability to contain Schelotto and the Crew’s wingers will go a long way in deciding the game. If they can isolate Steven Lenhart from service, they can effectively blunt most any Columbus attacking threat, as the Columbus big man become ineffective when he cannot combine with his teammates. On the attacking side of things, the Rapids will need to find a more effective way to bring Conor Casey into the game, he faced an uphill battle against the Crew’s physical and intelligent defensive pairing of Andy Iro and Chad Marshall in the first leg. Omar Cummings, while a huge threat on the ground, is less effective in the air, and if Colorado’s crosses can’t find Casey in the air, the Rapids will have a difficult task putting the ball in the back of the net.
The Crew stayed healthy through the first leg and aside from the long term injuries Danny O’Rourke, Will Hesmer and Emilio Renteria, will have a full complement of players to choose from. There are a few question marks on the Colorado side, with Quincy Amarikwa, Jamie Smith and Matt Pickens all dealing with minor injuries, but they are currently listed as probable and shouldn’t provide too much of a headache for Gary Smith when working on his lineup to take the field at Crew Stadium.
The winner of this series will play at home against the San Jose Earthquakes in the Eastern Conference final. A Colorado win or a draw sends them through to the next round, thanks to their 1-0 victory in Colorado. For Columbus, they will need to win by two goals to assure their progress to the conference final. Since away goals do not count in the MLS playoffs, a one-goal Columbus win would see the series go to extra time, and if the aggregate score is still even after 120 minutes of play, penalty kicks.Keep updated with Major League Soccer throughout the playoffs by visiting Goal.com's MLS page and joining Goal.com USA's Facebook fan page!