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Crew 2 looks to lock up the Eastern Conference against Chicago Fire II

A victory or a tie secures the No. 1 seed in the East.

Ralph Schudel - Massive Report

Last week, Columbus Crew 2 locked up the MLS NEXT Pro Central Division with a penalty kick shootout win against Orlando City B. This week, the Black & Gold could secure the top spot in the Eastern Conference with a win or a draw against the Chicago Fire II on Saturday evening. If Columbus loses this match, the team can still clinch the top spot in the East with a Toronto FC II loss or draw to Inter Miami II.

If Toronto does lose or draw, Crew 2 would know by halftime. Head Coach Laurent Courtois will need to keep his players focused in the locker room.

The Black & Gold are in the final stretch of a chase to be the top team in the overall MLS NEXT Pro table, not just the Eastern Conference. With only three games left, Columbus will likely need to win all of the team’s matches to stand as the top team in the regular season and have home-field advantage throughout the MLS NEXT Pro playoffs. Crew 2 sits on 47 points through 21 games and trails St. Louis City2 who has 48 points in 21 games. The Black & Gold will need some help if they are to overtake St. Louis, which could happen this week as City2 takes on Houston Dynamo 2, who is in third place in the Western Conference with 43 points in 21 games.

Chicago has put together consecutive wins for the first time in the team’s young history, defeating New York City FC II and TFC II in previous weeks. To keep the team’s playoff hopes alive, Fire II will need to win against Columbus as a loss will eliminate the team from the playoff race. Crew 2 will need to handle an opponent that is desperate and in need of a victory. This could be valuable playoff experience as Chicago will treat it as such.

A difficulty for MLS NEXT Pro teams is the length of the year, as many players have never played a 22-game regular season. Black & Gold forward Jacen Russell-Rowe, for instance, had played exactly two matches with TFC III and TFC II combined before this year. For Columbus, Russell-Rowe has played 21 matches between both the second and first teams.

The players who played in college had roughly a 16-game regular season and if the team did well, they could play in their conference tournaments and then possibly the NCAA Tournament, resulting in potentially 25 total matches. Defender Justin Malou who played for the championship-winning Clemson Tigers, played 21 of 24 games in that season. Although veterans from USL like Marco Micaletto have played longer seasons.

Courtois and the veteran players will need to help those coming from college and MLS academies manage their mentality and bodies for this final push, especially as the postseason grows closer. Having a goal to be No. 1 in the overall MLS NEXT Pro standings keeps the players focused and maintains a high level of intensity.

Saturday’s match, which is scheduled to kick off at 8:30 p.m. ET, will be played at Lower.com Field as part of a doubleheader with the senior team against both Chicago teams. This is Crew 2’s final regular season game at Lower.com Field. In three matches at Lower.com Field, Crew 2 has outscored opponents 9-2 for three victories.