If a team wants to win an MLS Cup or even make a run in the playoffs, there are two ways to do it these days. That team can either be really good and have elite players — see spend a lot of money — like Toronto FC last year or get hot at the right time. Columbus Crew SC isn’t a big spender in the league, but the team has made it a habit of playing its best when the season hits late August, moves into September and beyond.
“I think collectively people realize, we’re playing for the postseason and I think the games take on a different nature,” Crew SC head coach Gregg Berhalter said of this time of the year. “You have teams that are coming through the summer months where it’s warm and realize that this is the time to make their push and to give everything they have. And if they don’t give everything, they’re out.”
Under Berhalter, who arrived in Columbus in 2014, the Black & Gold have made the postseason three times. In all of those years, the team figured itself out over the final 10 or so games, making a push that carried over into the postseason. That’s led to one MLS Cup appearance (2015) and coming within a goal of another (2017).
So what is it that has made Crew SC so good when it comes to the end of the season where the games start to take on an added purpose?
“For the large part of my time here, we spend a lot of the season giving guys minutes, giving guys game time,” Berhalter explained. “And when we get to this time of year, we generally have a good idea of who our starting group is. And that’s when things solidify a little more and that’s when, in general, we’ve seen some good performances.”
This season is a little bit different. Although the Black & Gold have played 23 players at least 100 minutes this year, Berhalter is not ready to say the team has a set lineup. The head coach has made it clear that he believes the depth is better this season and stated Columbus has more than 13 players who could be a starter on any given game day.
With that said though, Berhalter understands this is the time to focus in and get the best available players on the field for any given game. The Black & Gold sit in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, four points ahead of the Philadelphia Union and eight points behind New York City FC. The Union could close the gap on Crew SC to one point with a win over D.C. United on Wednesday night.
For Columbus, who won three in a row before going 0-1-1 in their last two games, the goal is to follow the script of previous seasons and get on a hot streak quickly before heading into the postseason.
“I think the state we’re in right now, we want to try and attack the top,” Berhalter said. “Whatever that means. Atlanta’s pretty far ahead. But if we can go after spots ahead of us, it’d be great. We have eight games left and there’s 24 points on the table and we want to try and attack the top and it starts on Saturday.”
The Saturday game Berhalter referred to is against NYCFC. It marks the final time in the regular season the Black & Gold will play against an Eastern Conference team currently above them in the standing.
This means Saturday’s game is the last chance for Crew SC to directly “attack the top,” as Berhalter put it. Although the head coach typically doesn’t like to build one game up over another, this fact is something he’s making sure the team knows.
“Absolutely,” he said. “And that message we’re going to make clear to the group. We’ve already talked about it. It won’t be in our hands any more after Saturday.”
While Berhalter-coached teams have made it look easy to find form at the right time and make a playoff push, it’s more difficult than it appears and just because they’ve done it before doesn’t mean they will again. But the vibe around the team is that they’re playing well — last Thursday against the Chicago Fire excluded — and things are moving in the right direction.
“The guys are competing well, they’re making their cases,” Berhalter said. “Even the guys who haven’t contributed a lot in game minutes are doing well in training and it’s a good spirit. The guys really work hard.”
Sounds like another playoff run for Crew SC could be on the horizon.