[MLS] Nine days will have passed between the first leg and the second leg -- when Columbus hosts Colorado Saturday (4 p.m. ET, TeleFutura) in their conference semifinal, but Crew fans are just as concerned of what transpired 12 months ago. The Crew, taxed by a heavy burden of domestic and international matches for the past several months, looked lethargic at times in losing the first leg, 1-0, Oct. 28 at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.
Coach Robert Warzycha pulled playmaker Guillermo Barros Schelotto out of that match in the 68th minute, which triggered memories of his decision to bench Schelotto at the start of last year’s first leg against Real Salt Lake. RSL won that game, 1-0, then pulled off a stunning 3-2 upset at Columbus Crew Stadium to win the series, 4-2, on aggregate.
The fearsome Colorado strike duo of Triple-C, Conor Casey and Omar Cummings, may not be so formidable for the second leg. Casey missed a training session earlier this week with a hip problem, though he’s resumed training and traveled with the team to Columbus Thursday. They were the most productive forward pairing in the league with 27 goals nearly evenly split (Cummmings edged out Casey, 14-13).
Colorado does have a ready-made forward in Macoumba Kandji, acquired from New York just prior to the trade deadline, though his similarities to Cummings might preclude coach Gary Smith from using the two of them together if Casey’s fitness is in question.
Winger Jamie Smith, the team assist leader with eight, sat out the first leg with a hamstring injury but trained full-speed prior to the team’s departure and is a possible starter in Columbus. Another last-minute addition, ex-Dynamo Brian Mullan, has added energy and drive on the flanks while serving up two assists in his seven appearances.
The Rapids can, of course, advance simply by pitching a shutout. Yet they aren’t likely to bunker in for long periods. That might, a) force them to foul and provide Schelotto and Co. with dangerous set plays, and b) mitigate the possible vulnerability in goal of backup Andy Gruenebaum, pressed into service when a shoulder injury sidelined starter Will Hesmer for the playoffs.
As regards to a), midfielder Jeff Larentowicz says, “We know Schelotto’s service is good and they have a lot of big players. That’s the part we’re really going to have to concentrate on because if you commit a foul and put them in a good position, they’ve got guys like Chad Marshall who can come forward and score goals, and Schelotto can score on his own.” Monitoring Schelotto during the run of play will also be a primary task for Larentowicz and central partner Pablo Mastroeni.
Prior to the first leg, Coach Smith said no particular emphasis would be put on testing Gruenebaum, who didn’t play a regular season league match though he played in all of the Crew’s Concacaf Champions’ League and U.S. Open Cup games (10 in all). That stance might change for the second leg.
“I thought there were one or two occasions where he was a little bit hesitant, I thought he looked a little bit edgy,” Smith said to mlssoccer.com. “That moment of hesitation ... can be the difference between a goal and not.”
As to how Columbus may handle the pressure of win-or-else, Larentowicz says, “Maybe you can say Columbus has run into a tough schedule with all the games they’ve been playing in other competitions, but you can also say they have experience in playoff situations and will be comfortable in that environment. We have to be ready for that.”