The Major League Soccer regular season is far from done but the Columbus Crew are facing the rapid approach of crunch time, and they know it.
The Crew, winless since May 24 and seventh in the Eastern Conference, have to figure out a way to make gritty gameplay translate to valuable standings points if they want to be postseason contenders this year.
Crew defender and captain Michael Parkhurst said Wednesday — after a disheartening last-minute 2-1 loss to defending MLS Cup champions Sporting Kansas City — his team needs to focus now in its pursuit of being in playoff contention come October.
“Obviously, it’s down,” Parkhurst said of the team’s confidence following the dramatic defeat to Sporting KC (9-5-5). “You know, it’s been a tough stretch. It’s been a long time since we won an MLS game and it’s taken its toll.”
The Crew is slated to face a reeling squad in the Montreal Impact (3-9-5) when the Canadian franchise comes to town this weekend, and Columbus needs its offense to find a spark as the defense continues to work to limit chances.
Parkhurst and his backline played well Wednesday despite the loss, repelling eight of first-place Kansas City’s 10 shots.
The defensive corps featured Costa Rican natives Waylon Francis and Giancarlo Gonzalez in their first MLS action in more than two months after both were called up for their national team’s FIFA World Cup run to the quarterfinals.
The duo had not played alongside Parkhurst since a 1-0 home loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps May 10, but the aggressive presence of Chad Barson at right helped relieve a lot of pressure in the middle in the Costa Ricans’ first game back.
Barson made life nightmarish along the left flank for Sporting forward Soony Saad, who was replaced by substitute Kevin Ellis in the 57th minute.
Barson allowed neither player much leeway and limited their touches with an up-close style of contesting possession. Francis was then free to nudge inward and help midfielders Tony Tchani and Bernardo Anor cover space along the left side of Kansas City’s attacking half.
Sporting forward Dominic Dwyer, the team’s leading goal-scorer, therefore got the full brunt of world-class double coverage by Parkhurst and Gonzalez in the center and was a non-factor in the game because of it.
Dwyer was ruled offside three times and took no shots.
“I thought they did a good job on Dom Dwyer, he’s a handful,” Crew coach Gregg Berhalter said in a postgame press conference. “The backline I think performed pretty well. They haven’t been playing together in two months. So again, a little bit of rust in their communication, their movements and buildup but it’s fine.
“I think they did a good job.”
This performance could be a good indication that this Crew defense is for real, since Dwyer scored a goal just four minutes into Sporting’s July 12 match against the same Impact team Columbus is set to take on Saturday.
Unfortunately for the Crew, the newly reunited defense getting definitively beaten on just two Kansas City plays in nearly 95 minutes of total match time proved two times too many against the league’s fourth-highest scoring offense.
Sporting midfielder Benny Feilhaber notched an assist and his second score of the year, making him the difference in Wednesday’s game. His corner kick led to a headed goal by Sporting forward C.J. Sapong in the 42nd minute and he scored the game-winner from open space in the 93rd minute to break the hearts of Columbus fans.
In a match that included the drama of two red cards and an own goal by Kansas City defender Igor de Carvalho Juliao to equalize the game for the Crew, an extraordinary conclusion seemed to fit the occasion.
“It’s incredibly frustrating and disappointing, obviously, with the late goal there,” Crew midfielder Ethan Finlay said after the game. “I don’t think we would have been honestly satisfied with a tie tonight, but we definitely didn’t earn the win.”
Finlay will need to step up Saturday if the Crew want to come away with three points. He has been a consistent threat in the attacking half for the Black and Gold this season but he can’t do it alone against Montreal.
With forward Jairo Arrieta out of the lineup due to a hamstring injury sustained July 12 against the New York Red Bulls, and with starting forward Federico Higuain “not 100 percent fit” in Berhalter’s estimation, the onus looks to fall on utility players like Finlay and Anor to generate offense.
It’s also worth noting that talented midfielder Wil Trapp — usually a crucial distributor of the service ball to a streaking Finlay or a healthy Higuain — is out for Saturday’s matchup after his red card Wednesday earned him a one-game suspension.
So Finlay, who has played both as a forward and a midfielder this season, now has to use his speed and soft footwork to give the Crew an attacking presence more than ever.
If Finlay slots as a right wing midfielder Saturday and is aided by left-side counterpart Anor, any transition opportunities they can create against Montreal figure to be the ticket to glory. The Crew struggled to get anything substantive going in the midfield offensively against Kansas City, but Finlay and Anor have the skill sets to change that Saturday.
“He’s able to play outside mid, he’s able to play left back. He’s a strong guy in the air so those are things he was able to bring to tonight’s game,” Finlay said of Anor’s performance Wednesday as a second-half substitute. “(Anor) is very versatile and I think, you know, going forward … I think it’ll be good. He’s a huge part of this team.”
Barson also figures to be a vital contributor on both sides of the ball against Montreal.
His ability to traverse the pitch from end line to end line will be a boon in Columbus’ favor on Saturday, just as it was Wednesday when his skillful cross in the box resulted in the Sporting own goal that equalized the game.
“It’ll be another test. Montreal’s not in great form either,” Parkhurst said. “It’s a team we’re going to battle with for the playoffs, so we need to recharge the tanks and we need to be ready because we need to win that game.”
Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Crew Stadium.