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A trip to Toyota Park is tricker than it may appear for Crew SC

The Black & Gold have to be wary of a letdown against the Fire.

MLS: Chicago Fire at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Sunday marked a big game for Columbus Crew SC. The Black & Gold traveled to face Major League Soccer leaders Atlanta United on the road. The Five Stripes are a team that Crew SC has never beaten during the regular season or in regulation play, so it was an opportunity for Columbus to make a statement.

They didn’t. Crew SC fell 3-1 to Atlanta in a game that was really much closer than the score reflects. The Black & Gold proved that they can play with a team like Atlanta, the first MLS team to hit the 50-point mark this season and the likely top seed in the Eastern Conference when the playoffs roll around.

“I think the things we can take from (the game) are the intensity of the game, the execution of a game plan and knowing that every game is a battle, whether you’re playing the top team in the East or a team that’s a little bit lower in the standings,” captain Wil Trapp said this week.

This becomes the challenge this week.

After gearing up for the league leaders last week, Crew SC now has to bring the same level of intensity for an opponent “a little bit lower in the standings,” as Trapp put it. In fact, the Black & Gold next face the bottom team in the Eastern Conference in the Chicago Fire.

“It’s our mindset,” head coach Gregg Berhalter said of handling this differences of opponents. “Understanding what the opponent’s going to be like mentally. Understanding that they will bring the intensity, they will be in a mode where they want to get a win, and we have to match that.

That’s the key to the game is just understanding what this game is going to be like. It’s going to be a difficult game. I think they have quality in their group and we’re going to have to play our game and certainly look to break them down.”

What could be a motivational factor for Columbus is the struggles the team has gone through recently at Toyota Park, the home of the Fire. Crew SC haven’t won a game in Bridgeview, Illinois since 2015 and are just 1-4-1 in MLS play at Toyota Park since Berhalter took over the team in 2014. Given that Chicago has made the MLS Cup playoffs once over that stretch, this record does not reflect positively.

Another challenge is the quick turnaround. Crew SC played at Atlanta on Sunday afternoon, returned to Columbus that evening, practiced this week before departing for Chicago on Wednesday. This all stems from the game being moved by the Fire from Saturday, when it was originally scheduled, to Thursday night.

While there is plenty of potential for the Black & Gold to let their foot of the gas in this one, Berhalter says it will be on the coaches to make sure the players are at their best come game time.

“Our job as coaches is to get the group ready to play, to bring the needed intensity,” he said. “To caution that it’s going to be an easy game is certainly the message we’re going with because it’s not going to be an easy game. If anyone thinks that, they’re foolish because it’s a good Chicago team. We can hurt them but we have to have the right attitude and the right mindset.”

That mindset will be important in a game that could prove vital in the MLS standings. While it might be tough for Crew SC to climb out of fourth place and catch New York City FC, who sit eight points ahead of Columbus, the Black & Gold are in jeopardy of sliding down, as the Philadelphia Union are only six points back with a game in hand.

But this is a Columbus team that has made its money under Berhalter by playing its best soccer at the end of the season and being able to dictate its style of play on the opponent, home or away. According to striker Gyasi Zardes, that will be the plan again in Thursday’s tricky away fixture.

“We set the tone,” he said. We don’t allow the other team to dictate the game. So we have to set the tone early on, win the first 15 minutes. We’ve got to treat Chicago just like Atlanta because they are a dangerous team.”

If Crew SC does not come out focused and set that tone, it could be another tough night in Bridgeview for the Black & Gold.