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Clinching a playoff spot might be more difficult than it appears vs. Orlando City

The Black & Gold have the chance to seal the deal against a struggling side. But that doesn’t make it easy.

MLS: Orlando City SC at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Columbus Crew SC is in an interesting spot heading into Sunday’s game against Orlando City SC. Following two consecutive disappointing performances — tying 0-0 at home with the Philadelphia Union and losing 3-0 at the Montreal Impact — the Black & Gold still haven’t qualified for the MLS Cup playoffs with two games remaining. In theory, Columbus could climb as high as third place by the regular season’s end or drop as low as seventh and miss the postseason entirely.

“I’d like to get it done this weekend,” fullback Hector Jimenez said of clinching the playoffs on Wednesday.

His head coach agrees.

“Every week you want it,” Gregg Berhalter said. “We wanted it against Montreal also.”

It’s clear Crew SC want to lock a playoff berth up this weekend and not have to worry about clinching anything but the team’s seed on “Decision Day 2018” but obviously that’s easier said than done.

To seal the deal and get into the postseason, the Black & Gold need either a win on Sunday or a Montreal loss or tie against Toronto FC. What stands in Columbus’ way of handling things themselves is an Orlando side that is the second-worst team in MLS this season and was eliminated from the playoffs some time ago.

While playing a team at the bottom of the standings like OCSC should make it easier to finish things off on Sunday, that is not the approach the team is taking.

“I would never insinuate that we’re going in thinking this is a light opponent. That’s not the case,” Berhalter said. “This is going to be a difficult game and we’re going to have to be prepared if we want to win.”

While Orlando has struggled in each of its first four seasons in the league, this year is clearly the worst. City is almost assured of finishing at the bottom of the East and has the fewest wins in team history. From May 13 to July 7, the club lost nine consecutive games and have two other three-game losing streaks this season, including the one the Lions are currently on.

Perhaps mostly impressively unless you’re a fan of the men in purple, OCSC has allowed a league-worst 72 goals through 32 games played. Not just a league-worst this season but ever in the history of MLS. For a Crew SC team that has struggled to score this year, just 39 goals for and none in the last two matches, this game seems exactly what the doctor ordered.

Again though, that’s not the way the team is looking at it. At any point, including Sunday, this Orlando side could put together a good performance and play spoiler for someone’s playoff hopes.

“I think that’s a good way to look at it,” Berhalter said. “I would never categorically say that they’re a bad defense. I think over the season they haven’t performed well at all times but there’s been some games where they’ve done a good job.”

If Crew SC needs an example of a cautionary tale, they don’t need to look far. In late July, the Black & Gold welcomed this struggling OCSC side to MAPFRE Stadium. Columbus trailed for much of that game and required a controversial penalty kick with two minutes to play and wonder strike from Wil Trapp in stoppages time to earn a 3-2 win.

In that game, City did a lot of things right to hurt Crew SC and could do the same at home with nothing to lose on Sunday.

“I thought we were poor in defensive transition in that game,” Berhalter said. “I thought we lost our balance. They played a 4-1-4-1 in that game and when we lost it in front of that midfield line of four, they were countering with five guys pretty quickly and we had too many numbers on the other side of that midfield line which hurt us. So we’re going to have to be more balanced this game.”

What could also complicate things is the fact that Orlando doesn’t need to win, so they could play a variety of ways. City could line up with five in the back and just try to frustrate the Black & Gold or come out attacking. Head coach James O’Connor could go with his strongest lineup or he could play young players.

No matter what the Lions do on Sunday afternoon, Columbus’ approach, as it has been all season, will be about them. The team doesn’t want to rely on others to help secure a playoff spot but rather handle business themselves. That requires defeating Orlando.

“We’re just going to need a professional performance,” Berhalter said. “Whatever team they put out, we’re going to have to be professional in our approach and our performance.”