Cody Cousino / Photo editor
A cruel fate befell the Columbus Crew on Nov. 6, 2010, when they were eliminated from the MLS Cup playoffs in a shootout by the Colorado Rapids at Crew Stadium.
“There can’t be a more heartbreaking way to end a season,” then-Crew defender Frankie Hejduk said after the match.
Hejduk has since left Columbus as a result of an offseason roster overhaul by third-year coach Robert Warzycha. Former Crew midfielder Guillermo Barros Schelotto, a fan favorite like Hejduk, also left Crew Stadium.
Columbus will be a much different team when it takes the pitch tomorrow night in Commerce City, Colo. — of the 11 starters from its final game last season, five are no longer with the team
Some of the names and faces of the Crew franchise changed, but the team finds itself in a similar situation with a Wild Card-round playoff match set to kick-off against the Rapids on Thursday.
Warzycha managed the Crew to a 47-point, fourth-place finish in the Eastern Conference — just one point shy of the Philadelphia Union and a Wild Card-round bye — and a berth in the playoffs.
Defending MLS Cup champion Colorado finished fifth in the Western Conference with 49 points and again stand between Columbus and postseason glory.
Based on the regular-season series, which the two teams split, 1-1, Thursday’s one-off, elimination game figures to be a close contest.
The Crew tallied a 4-1 win against Colorado on June 26 at Crew Stadium before the Rapids returned the favor with a 2-0 victory on Aug. 5, at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City.
“This game we have to be all out,” defender Chad Marshall told thecrew.com. “We have to go for the win. There’s no sitting back. We have to be ready from the start.
“You win or go home. Everybody wants to get to the promised land, and we definitely do.”
What to expect
Unlike in last season’s two-game series between the Crew and Rapids, William Hesmer will be between the wickets for Columbus, and he is healthy.
Hesmer was forced from the Crew’s lineup in the final regular season game in 2010. Backup keeper Andy Gruenebaum started both playoff games for the Crew as a result.
Gruenebaum is a serviceable backup, but Hesmer is the better goalie and his presence against Colorado this time around could see the Crew through to the conference semi-final round of the playoffs.
Unlike last season’s home-and-home series, Thursday night’s match will be a single elimination match that presents somewhat of a disadvantage for the visiting Crew. In an aggregate series, the away team in the first game will typically play more defensive in an attempt to force a draw and then look to clinch in the following match at home.
Columbus won’t have that luxury this time around.
“Last year, we went (to Colorado) knowing we have a home game after,” Marshall told thecrew.com. “You kind of sit back and defend and take the pressure and hope to get out of there with a tie or maybe sneak a win.”
Columbus lost the first leg of that playoff series in Colorado, 1-0.
The Rapids will be without star striker Conor Casey, whose late-game goal against the Crew in last year’s playoffs forced overtime and ultimately led to penalty kicks. Even so, it won’t be easy for Columbus to overcome the mile-high altitude of Colorado and emerge with a victory.
Some say that the strength of a soccer team comes from its key players, from the keeper to the strikes, being positioned up the middle of the team’s formation. With Hesmer in net, Marshall in central defense, midfielder Robbie Rogers and strikers Emilio Renteria and Andres Mendoza lined up the middle of the park, any MLS team would have trouble coping with that arrangement.
Key battle to watch: Rogers vs. Jeff Larentowicz
In soccer, games are often won or lost in the midfield. Rogers and Colorado midfielder Larentowicz will vie for midfield dominance Thursday and whoever comes out on top by game’s end will likely see their team to victory.
Rogers and Larentowicz are MLS veterans with playoff experience, and are United States national team teammates as well. The weight of advancing in the playoffs rests on the shoulders of these two maestros.
Prediction: Hesmer rises up and delivers a shutout as the Crew prevail, 1-0.
Kickoff for Thursday’s playoff game is set for 10 p.m. EST.