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Think of Columbus Crew SC as underdogs at your own risk

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The Black & Gold don’t believe in the labels placed on them this postseason.

MLS: Eastern Conference Semifinal-New York City at Columbus Crew Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Underdogs.

That is what Columbus Crew SC has been in each of the team’s first two MLS Cup playoff successes in 2017.

After finishing fifth in the Eastern Conference, Crew SC began the postseason by traveling to fourth-seed Atlanta United for a one-game knockout round contest.

Few outside of Columbus — including many at Massive Report -- thought the Black & Gold would overcome the adversity of playing in front of 70,000 fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and the talent level of the Five Stripes.

Crew SC was not a popular pick to eliminate New York City FC in the Eastern Conference semifinals either, even after taking a commanding 4-1 lead in the first leg.

Almost no one who doesn’t regularly wear black and gold will pick the Black & Gold in the Eastern Conference Final against Toronto FC, the 2017 Supporter’s Shield winners.

And the Crew SC players know this.

“I think we have embraced that (underdog) mentality,” captain Wil Trapp said.

“We’re a smaller market. Every team we’ve played has been bigger in a lot of senses of the word. And ultimately Atlanta was a tough game; we moved on. New York City was a tough series; we moved on. Now we’re playing the granddaddy of them all against a team who was the best in the league all year.”

While Columbus players understand the perspective of those outside of MAPRE Stadium and the club’s EAS Training Center, it does not mean they accept it as fact.

Actually, as winger Justin Meram explained, this team does not see itself as underdogs at all.

“As outsiders looking in, I’m sure everyone sees us as that. But that’s not what this locker room see, with this quality as a group and as a coaching staff,” he said.

“I think we’re mentally in the right mindset and we don’t look too much into the underdog stuff.”

And Crew SC shouldn’t.

The Black & Gold ended the regular season on a 10-match unbeaten run. Before the 2-0 defeat to NYCFC in the last round — where Columbus still advanced — Crew SC hadn’t lost since Aug. 5.

After struggling through various portions of the first half of the season, head coach Gregg Berhalter and his staff figured out the right lineups and tactics for the Black & Gold. As the results came, the confidence grew.

“We know that we’re one of the best, if not the best, prepared teams in the league,” Trapp said. “We believe in our coaching staff and the plans they put forth. It’s also hard to think about yourself as an underdog when you have that resource and the way we have been playing.”

Although the preparation by the players and coaches may not be visible to the pundits covering games from afar, it has been noticeable on the field.

Crew SC had a smart game plan in traveling to Atlanta and handled that adverse situation. Defending for their lives at Yankee Stadium in last round, the players kept their wits and the staff made the right adjustments to advance.

Was there a bit of luck involved? Sure, but every series winner is going to have some fortune. Columbus has been prepared for each opponent dating back to the summer and that has made this a dangerous team in the MLS Cup playoffs.

On Tuesday night, when the Black & Gold step onto the field at MAPFRE Stadium against TFC, Crew SC will once again be labeled as underdogs against the league’s best side.

While they disagree, this team is fine with that tag.

“I think a lot of the experts are saying we probably don’t have a chance,” Berhalter said. “A lot of the experts are probably saying Toronto’s going to win the whole thing and that’s fine. We can live with that. Fortunately for us, we get to actually play.”

As far as Columbus is concerned, the team will just keep on proving it wrong.