On paper, Columbus Crew SC got the worst possible matchup in the MLS Cup playoffs Knockout Round. The Black & Gold face a D.C. United team that went 10 games without a loss to end the regular season, a stretch that saw the Black and Red win seven games.
Meanwhile, Crew SC uncharacteristically stumbled into the playoffs with two wins in the final seven games, including a weird victory in the final game that saw a weather delay and a blown two-goal lead by Columbus before a late winner from forward Gyasi Zardes that clinched the fifth seed and a date with D.C.
Typically, it has been the Black & Gold who have been the hot team at the end of the regular season that opponents don’t want to face in the playoffs. That has propelled this team to both an MLS Cup Final and Eastern Conference Final appearances in the five years under head coach Gregg Berhalter. But this year is different.
So why should Crew SC fans have hope despite their team heading into the postseason without the usual results and facing the team that has had them?
“Because it’s a brand new season,” captain Wil Trapp said. “Because anything can happen as we’ve seen in years prior with the playoffs. I think for us, it gives us confidence that we have to prove something and this is a game in which we can do that.”
Given the nature of the MLS Cup playoffs, Trapp is right. The Knockout Round is one game and anything can happen in a one-off contest.
There is evidence to that as recently as Wednesday night’s Knockout Round results. The Portland Timbers, who had just two wins in their previous five games coming into the postseason, defeated FC Dallas on the road and New York City FC, who had only two wins dating back to mid-August, thoroughly dispatched of the Philadelphia Union.
“Playoffs is a whole other beats,” goalkeeper Zack Steffen said. “The season’s over with and you get this special feeling in your gut now. Butterflies and the anxiety and the nerves and the excitement comes.”
While they might not be on their best form entering the playoffs, Crew SC does have one thing that is certainly an advantage in the second season: experience. Winger Justin Meram has played in 13 postseason games for the Black & Gold while Trapp and playmaker Federico Higuain have both seen action in 12. The core of this team has been in these environments in the playoffs and understand that these games are different and what it takes to win them.
“I think we have an experienced playoff group,” Berhalter said. “I think this is the time where they know it’s do or die, but also this is the time where they get hungry. We’ve seen a lot of positives things throughout the years when we go to the playoffs.”
In fact, most of the players that will suit up for Columbus on Thursday were in a very similar spot just over a year ago when the team was the underdog going to Atlanta United. Like in this Knockout Round game against D.C., the team was going to a stadium it had never played in and nearly everyone was counting them out.
Crew SC battled United for 120 minutes in one of the more exciting games of the 2018 playoffs, and eventually walked out of Mercedes-Benz Stadium with a penalty kick shoot out win which sparked the run to the East Finals.
“I think that gives confidence to the group, in the locker room,” Meram said of the result in Atlanta last year. “Guys understand what’s the task Thursday night. It’s going to be a hostile environment, you’re going to have to bring your A game. But mentally, physically, you need to be in-tune from the first whistle to 90 minutes because it’s going to be a grind. It’s going to be a battle and we need to up our intensity in these matches because playoff games, especially on the road, are a battle.”
Of the team’s top 15 players in terms of minutes this year, 11 of them were a part of the group that narrowly missed out on hosting the MLS Cup Final last season. While that team did get hot at the right time, going 10 games undefeated to close out the regular season, they also had a chip on their shoulder mentality as the rest of MLS counted them out.
That’s something similar this year’s team feels.
“D.C., they’re on fire right now and we like to be the underdogs,” Steffen said. “And we like to go in there and play our game and shock the league and shock the team we’re playing.”
On Thursday night, Crew SC is walking into Audi Field against a confident United side that believes they have what it takes to win MLS Cup. They are going to be in for at least a 90-minute battle against one of the hottest teams to end the season in MLS.
But that doesn’t concern the Black & Gold. This is about going out and getting a result on that night. Not about what happened in the past.
“It doesn’t matter anymore. It really doesn’t,” Trapp said. “We thought maybe we weren’t going to make the playoffs and then we get the fifth seed. Anything can happen. So it’s really about putting yourself in a position to win the game, stepping out as a collective and then understanding the difficulty of what this game is going to be. The fact that we can also hurt them. We can also win.”