Beasts of the East
The Columbus Crew has spent its 2008 season exorcising old demons. In doing so, they've been playing like a team possessed by more benevolent spirits.
But no divine intervention was required when the Crew downed the Chicago Fire on Thursday to claim the Eastern Conference crown. Now Columbus is preparing to make the most of its prize: One more match for all the marbles.
Pinch yourself, Crew fans. Your team is finally going to MLS Cup.
Through a dozen years of ups and downs, Columbus four times made it to the brink of the league championship match, only to fall short. In the three seasons before this one, the Crew didn't even come close, failing to make the postseason in a league where more than half the teams qualify.
In its 13th year, the Crew finally broke through. It did so by laying waste to one Eastern Conference rival after another.
None of these wins was more symbolic than the final 2-1 victory over Chicago, a microcosm of everything this year has become for the Black and Gold.
There was the Crew working together to climb back from a deficit once again. There was the ever-expanding Nordecke, unceasingly cheering on their club with passion and profanity. There were Sigi Schmid and Guillermo Barros Schelotto, two legends reveling in the extreme makeover they had engineered.
Perhaps most stunning: There was Defender of the Year Chad Marshall soaring above traitorous Brian McBride for a goal, a gesture that put the not-quite-glory days of McBride's Columbus career to bed for good and proclaimed a new day in Crewville.
McBride knew it. In the post-game locker room, he wore an expression of intense despair and wounded pride. Taking Columbus for granted, McBride chose his side, and the crowd dispatched him as readily as the Crew dispatched the Fire.
Chicago is the latest of many rivals to have its season ruined by Columbus:
- The Crew started by derailing the New England Revolution's campaign with a pair of dominating victories in September. At that point, Columbus and New England had been racing for the top seed in the East, but with wins of 4-0 at home and 1-0 on the road, the Crew sent their adversaries from Foxborough spiraling downward.
- Toronto FC? Owned. Columbus claimed the Trillium Cup with ease by winning the season series with their northern neighbors.
- Columbus continued its reign of terror by beating DC United on the last day of the regular season, denying its old nemesis a playoff berth.
- Kansas City isn't as hated as the rest of the Eastern Conference teams. However, beating the Wizards 3-1 on aggregate in the conference semifinals was sweet for Schmid, who counts a controversial loss last year at K.C. as his biggest coaching disappointment.
The Crew has rolled over all but one of its Eastern foes en route to Sunday's final in Carson, California. In order to win the Philip Anschutz Trophy, they'll need to upend that last geographical rival.
The last obstacle standing between the Crew and the cup? Lowly Red Bull New York, whose losing record barely earned them a wild-card playoff spot.
Due to the bizarre MLS playoff system, New York ended up in the Western bracket. And thanks to a hot streak and lots of good luck, the club once known as MetroStars squeaked its way into its first championship game.
Many will suggest that Thursday's Crew-Fire match was the real MLS Cup, but the Crew would do well not to sleep on a Red Bulls team that seems to have luck on its side. All year, Columbus fans have been declaring their club "Massive," but a loss Sunday would render the 2008 campaign a massive disappointment.
On the other hand, if the Crew comes to California and plays the marvelous brand of soccer that got them this far, Frankie Hejduk is going to be downing lots of champagne Sunday night.
Chris DeVille is in L.A. for MLS Cup. For a breakdown of the Crew's season plus reports from Sunday's game, click to ColumbusAlive.com/sensory
What: Columbus Crew vs. New York Red Bulls
When: 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 23
Where: Home Depot Center; Carson, California (TV coverage on ABC)