Just two of Major League Soccer’s 23 teams are currently out of contention for a playoff spot as the regular season nears its end and Columbus Crew SC’s next opponent, the Colorado Rapids, is one of them.
What could be faced by many as an indication of a hopeless and unmotivated rival coming to MAPRE Stadium on Saturday is actually interpreted differently by the Black & Gold as the team prepares to the game.
According to head coach Gregg Berhalter, Colorado’s current status is somehow not fair to the progress the team displayed over the last weeks. Although the Rapids have won just two of their last eight games and arrive in Columbus on the back of four consecutive losses in which they failed to score, Berhalter believes they’ve been playing better recently.
“I think there are two sides of it and the first is that they’re eliminated, so they’re free in their minds,” the head coach said. “And the second is that they’ve been playing better. When you look at how they’re playing, they’ve been giving teams problems. They’re loading guys low in the field and building up and pressing higher. This turnaround in their last eight games has been fun to watch because they’ve been playing much better.”
Teams with no aspirations are difficult to read and predict and the Rapids are no different. Being out of contention, a team can easily get into a slump and never bounce back.
The lack of team goals, on the other hand, can make players put their individual objectives as a priority and the motivation of showing good performances to earn a new contract can drive teams to a rise when there’s nothing else to fight for.
“Everyone handles it differently,” Berhalter added. “Two years ago we were out of contention and we made some lineup changes because I wanted to see some other guys and wanted to reward some players for a great year of training. Every team handles it differently and the coach is going to decide which path to take.”
Regardless of how Colorado approaches the game, though, Crew SC knows it will need a strong attitude on the field on this weekend’s game. Currently sitting in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, Columbus is close to clinching a playoff spot but the outcome of the game against the Rapids can help define the team’s future.
A victory will put the Black & Gold in real contention for a top-three placement in the conference while a setback could allow the Philadelphia Union, the fifth place team in the East, to take Crew SC’s spot by the time the weekend ends.
To captain Wil Trapp, the attention level needs to be as high as ever, regardless of Colorado’s situation.
“It’s a team that if you give them chances, they can still punish you,” Trapp commented. “And so we have to understand that we have to be the aggressors. They didn’t play mid-week, so they’re going to be a little bit fresher than we are. So we have to step onto the field with an intensity and level of focus that transcends the fatigue and understand that they’re going to try and play spoiler.”
The game can indeed be crucial as, after collecting just one point in road games against FC Dallas and the Portland Timbers in the last seven days, the Crew starts a two-match home stand against the Rapids.
With the Union coming to Columbus next weekend for a game that could potentially decide which team will have home field advantage in the knockout round of the playoffs, the Black & Gold need to get as many points as possible and against the Rapids, anything different than a victory will put the team in a tough spot.
“It’s a huge one,” goalkeeper Zack Steffen acknowledged. “It’s a home game before the one against Philly next weekend and a game against a team who’s not in the playoffs and has nothing to lose. They can come here and don’t care and ball out and score three goals. That’s how soccer is. We’re going to have to be ready and be focused and really execute well. They have some dangerous pieces and we need to be smart.”