Crew: Get ready for the stretch run

Chris DeVille, Columbus Alive

The Crew didn't just survive its series of seven matches in 22 days, it thrived. A 4-2-1 record highlighted by the electrifying addition of Argentine forward Federico Higuain was enough to catapult Columbus back into playoff position. The sole loss, a 2-0 defeat at New England in the final game of the three-week gantlet, was not reason to temper enthusiasm so much as proof of how badly the Crew needed rest.

Fortunately, what followed was a 10-day break between matches, so the club should be plenty recuperated when they return to action Saturday at New York, the launch pad for this season's stretch run. With seven matches remaining (mercifully spread out over six weeks this time), every game is going to be a slugfest.

Columbus sits at 42 points, good for the fifth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot. But the Crew's grip on the postseason is tenuous at best, with sixth-place DC United only one point behind. If those longtime rivals remain close in the standings, their looming Oct. 20 showdown in DC could be make-or-break. And the expansion Montreal Impact still has an outside shot of rising from seventh place if they can string together something miraculous, so there's little relief from below.

Meanwhile, everybody above Columbus in the table will be jockeying for playoff position. With matches against first-place Kansas City, second-place New York and fourth-place Chicago remaining, the Crew could feasibly keep rising as high as the second seed if their run of good form continues. Mathematically, Columbus could still win the conference, but that would require several other clubs to falter down the stretch.

So what does the Crew need to pull off in terms of results? Each of the four remaining home games are must-wins, especially since three of them are against relative weaklings Chivas USA, Philadelphia and Toronto. That's easier said than done for a squad that has been dropping points at home all season, but this Higuain-infused Crew seems to be a different team entirely. Picking off New York and Chicago on the road would be huge too, but coming away from those contests with just a draw seems like a difficult but reasonable expectation.

The point is: The Crew can't be content to stop picking up points now.

Columbus Crew atNew York Red Bulls

7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 15


Columbus Crew vs. Chivas USA

Crew Stadium

7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 19

1 Black & Gold Blvd., Fairgrounds