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Crew falling in East, West rivals square off
by Ridge Mahoney, September 30th, 2011 1:28AM

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TAGS:  columbus crew, mls

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With a full weekend of matches spread over two days, and several teams having already played during the week, crucial intra-conference battles highlight the action.

CRUNCH TIME FOR CREW, AGAIN. Already this season, Columbus has pulled up just short of a tailspin to deliver an impressive performance that restored its credentials as a legitimate playoff team.

It will need to do so again on Sunday, when it hosts D.C. United in yet another of what has become a pressure-packed series of Eastern Conference matches while it is in poor form. It does get some advantage in that United played Thursday and lost, 3-2, in Philadelphia after rallying from two goals down. Dwayne De Rosario (his league-leading 14th goal of the season) and Andy Najar scored nine minutes apart to tie the game but Philly produced a moment of magic in the second half to snag the win.

Philly’s win dropped the Crew out of the three automatic playoff slots in the East. The Union moved into second thanks for a pair of goals by Sebastien Le Toux, and a spectacular winner from right back Michael Farfan, who dribbled into the middle to fire a left-footed shot into the top corner

In early June, the Crew ended a five-match winless streak by beating Real Salt Lake, 2-1, less than two months after RSL had come within a goal of winning the Concacaf Champions League. It lost its next two on the road, then thumped defending champion Colorado, 4-1, to trigger a strong run that drove it to the top of the Eastern Conference.

But now the Crew is staggering. In its last six games, it has lost five and tied one (2-2 against Houston Sept. 14) and been outscored, 16-7, despite playing three of those games at home. After conceding 12 goals against Seattle, Toronto, and Houston, Columbus tightened up the "D" and switched low-scoring defeats for shootouts: 1-0 losses to Philadelphia and Los Angeles and a 2-1 defeat in Kansas City Wednesday.

Bad luck plagued the Crew at Livestrong Sporting Park; defender Chad Marshall was whistled for a debatable penalty and SKC’s winning goal came off the head of defender Julius James. Robbie Rogers set up the Columbus goal for Emilio Renteria and thus notched his seventh assist of the season; that’s a career-high, but what does that say about the production of a player who’s in the national team pool and is supposed to be, along with the injured Eddie Gaven, an attacking catalyst since the departure of Guillermo Barros Schelotto?

Two Eastern teams just outside the playoff slots, Houston and Chicago, meet at Robertson Stadium, and Toronto FC gets the chance to play spoiler against New York at BMO Field. New conference leader Sporting Kansas City has a tricky test at San Jose, which despite its low placing has taken points at Portland and Colorado in its last two games.

The tightly bunched Eastern Conference, with three automatic spots, looks like this, with teams in the wild-card hunt – or out of it -- listed by their overall placing on points:

Eastern Conference, 1-9:
E1 – Sporting Kansas City, 44 pts.;
E2 – Philadelphia, 43 pts.;
E3 – Houston, 42 pts.;
WC9 – Columbus, 41 pts.;
WC10 – New York, 39 pts.;
11 – D.C. United, 38 pts.;
13 – Chicago, 36 pts.;
16 – Toronto FC, 30 pts.;
17 – New England, 27 pts.

MEANWHILE, OUT WEST. Four of the top five teams in the Western Conference get a chance to knock heads a few weeks before the playoffs, in which probably five and maybe six will participate.

Colorado and FC Dallas have lost seven of their last 10 games combined as they prepare for their meeting at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park on Saturday. Both come into the game from high-scoring midweek matches on the road in the Concacaf Champions League. A team of Rapids backups stunned Isidro Metapan, 3-1, in El Salvador; FC Dallas suffered a 5-3 hammering by Tauro FC in Panama.

Both teams rested some regulars for the league meeting, yet the alarming form of FCD and homefield advantage gives the edge to Colorado, which with 42 points can probably clinch a playoff spot by winning. FCD (46 pts.) is not secure mathematically but only an amazing array of results can put its postseason plans in danger. Neither team, however, is playing the caliber of soccer necessary to go deep into the playoffs.

By contrast, the Galaxy looks solid on all fronts after scoring in stoppage time Wednesday to beat Morelia, 2-1, in a CCL group match. David Beckham and Robbie Keane sat out that game, which isn’t good news for Real Salt Lake, which heads to Home Depot Center after losing at home to Chicago, 3-0. It won’t have captain Kyle Beckerman, whose red card in the 11th minute against the Fire rules him out of this game.

Portland, whose playoff push has sputtered of late, heads north to play expansion counterpart Vancouver for the unveiling of B.C. Place. The Union’s reward for it emotional triumph over D.C. United Thursday night is a long trip cross-country to play fringe contender Chivas USA at HDC on Sunday.

The Western Conference, along with wild-card possibilities listed by overall points, lines up like this:

Western Conference, 1-9:
W1 – Los Angeles, 61 pts.;
W2 – Seattle, 54 pts.;
W3 – Real Salt Lake, 51 pts.;
WC7 – FC Dallas, 46 pts.;
WC8 – Colorado, 42 pts.;
12 – Portland, 37 pts.;
14 – Chivas USA, 35 pts.;
15 – San Jose, 31 pts.;
18 – Vancouver, 22 pts.



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