[MLS] The first of the four MLS conference semifinal series begins Thursday (9 p.m., ESPN2/Deportes) at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park with Colorado (12-8-10) hosting 2008 MLS Cup winner Columbus (14-8-8). Soccer America's Ridge Mahoney analyzes the matchup, position-by-position ...
GOALKEEPING. The Crew’s Andy Gruenebaum has played only 24 games in his five MLS seasons and none in the playoffs. He’s played 10 matches this season in the Concacaf Champions League and U.S. Open Cup. Rapids’ goalie Matt Pickens compiled a 1.10 goals-allowed average-- the identical figure registered by Will Hesmer before he suffered a fractured shoulder in the final minutes of the season finale -- and played five games in the 2006 and 2007 playoffs for Chicago before coming to Colorado.
DEFENSE. Chad Marshall is one of the league’s best, but the rest of the Crew back four has been shuffled around because of injuries and fatigue induced by a crushing schedule. Pairing Drew Moor with Marvell Wynne in the middle and trading for left back Anthony Wallace has resulted in the Rapids’ shaving six goals off their goals-allowed total from last year; those 32 goals are two fewer than the 34 conceded by Columbus.
MIDFIELD. An up-and-down season for Robbie Rogers and the streakiness of Emmanuel Ekpo give the Crew a unpredictable dynamic on the flanks. Anchor Brian Carroll could be partnered in the middle with Eddie Gaven (3 goals, 5 assists), who has played on the right most of the season. The central tandem of Jeff Larentowicz and Pablo Mastroeni has quietly matured into one of the league’s best, and there’s an array of options out wide.
FORWARDS. To the fearsome duo of Conor Casey and Omar Cummings (27 goals combined) the Rapids have added the strong and fast Macoumba Kandji, who can also played wide in midfield. The statistics dipped this season for Guillermo Barros Schelotto (9 goals, 8 assists) and forwards Steven Lenhart (six goals) and Emilio Renteria (five goals) have been solid if not spectacular.
COACHING. Crew coach Robert Warzycha absorbed a lot of criticism last October for benching Schelotto and Alejandro Moreno for the first playoff game against Real Salt Lake. That was his first season as head coach; this season, the Crew managed one more point than it compiled last year while winning the Supporters’ Shield. Gary Smith, who replaced Fernando Clavijo late in the 2008 season, is coaching his first playoff team. By adding pieces during the season – Brian Mullan, Anthony Wallace and Kandji – Smith has forged continuous improvement.
FORM. The Crew beat Philadelphia, 3-1, in its season finale to break a six-game winless streak (0-3-3) in league play. It is battle-tested but also fatigued. The Rapids won five of their last 10 games, including a 3-1 defeat of the Galaxy at Home Depot Center Oct. 16.
PREDICTION: Both teams win a game, Colorado prevails on total goals, 3-2.