Incredibly, DC has really never been in a truly must win the last game of the season situation before. Usually, they are well in or well out by now. Typically, they’ve sewed up a playoff spot long before the last game, and even in the dark years, they were pretty much eliminated long before the last week of the season. Only in 2003 did they need a tie in the last game to qualify, but that doesn’t really count as they knew they needed a win in any of their last four games that year. That team controlled their own destiny for almost a month and literally fumbled it into needing a point in the last match.
However, with the Red Bulls getting crushed by Chicago Thursday in their last game of the season, DC will capture the last playoff spot with a win over the Supporter’s Shield winning Crew in Columbus tomorrow night. So, for the first time ever, it’s bottom of the ninth and the team needs a home run to keep their MLS Cup dreams alive.
However, United still has to prove they belong in the post season by beating the absolute best team in the league this season. The Crew has dominated the East ever since July and locked up the Supporter’s Shield two weeks ago, so assuming a win would be a foolish, but DC does have some good reasons to think they can pull off the full three points.
In fact, the situation really is set up just about as good as could possibly be for DC. Since NY lost on Thursday, there’s been plenty of time for DC to know what they need to do and to get ready. Also, the Crew really have very little to play for having locked up the home field long a go, and they now know that they won’t face DC again unless it’s in the MLS Cup as KC will be their first round opponent no matter what the result tomorrow. So, in all likelihood they will be focusing more on staying healthy and trying to head into the playoffs on a good note rather than scrapping for every ball and gouging out an ugly victory.
Oh, the Crew will be trying to win no doubt, but that little edge that’s often needed to win will simply not be there as much as it will for DC. Every ball and shin kicked in anger could be DC’s last of the season, while Columbus knows they are the odds on favorite for facing the Dynamo in the MLS Cup. True, given the history between the two clubs, the Crew would absolutely love to knock DC out of the playoffs altogether, but when push comes to shove, spite rarely wins out over true desperation. And DC will be desperate.
However, along with being desperate, they are also getting a lot healthier by the minute. Emilio, Quaranta, Guerrero, and Fred should all be pretty much one hundred percent, or as close to it as anyone is this late in the season. Moreno is still a little banged up, but I’m betting if he can play 20 minutes in his Bolivia farewell, he can go at least a half when DC’s playoff life is on the line. The defense is nearly full strength too, and might even be able to have the recently signed revelation, Greg Janicki back from a leg strain as well.
So, if DC plays to their capabilities, and the Crew are the slightest bit off form, DC should have the edge mentally and emotionally. Now as for tactical and technical, that’s a different story. The Crew have shown themselves to be remarkably resilient and deep this season, so United is going to need every bit of bite they have to swing things in their favor.
Controlling Schelotto will obviously be of paramount importance. He’s almost certain to be league MVP and as he goes so goes the Crew for the most part. It will take more than one player to really contain him, as he really floats in that gray area between their forward and the midfield, so it’s not as simple as draping Simms or Peralta all over him. It will have to be a combination of players who need to be aware of him and look to quickly shut him down. But, DC can’t afford to foul him or anyone else too often as he is deadly on free kicks.
So, looking at the matchups defensively, down the center DC will have Simms, Peralta, and either Janicki and or McTavish looking to negate Evans, Schelotto, and their Moreno. Peralta scrapping with Curious George should be a titanic battle and Peralta could cement his name on next year’s roster by winning that one. McT or Janicki staying with Schelotto is clearly a reach, but possible soccer gods willing, and certainly Simms should be able to keep Evans in check.
Robbie Rogers will be trouble coming down that left side, but Padula really isn’t too much threat to help, so Namoff will have to play as good as he ever has. Speed guys do cause him trouble, but Rogers is erratic too. Namoff has the experience and leadership to do the job though, so there’s reason to hope that works out well. However, Gaven on the right helped out by frantic Frankie shouldn’t really be too much trouble for Guerrero and Burch, or Martinez if he’s pulled himself together after a miserable last three weeks.
So, keeping the game tight is well within the realm of possibilities assuming DC continues to play as well as they have their last two against Houston and NE. But, DC will need goals to see this out, and preferably more than one. Something they have trouble doing on the road with only 11 goals in 14 road games.
Obviously, the reigning league MVP and league’s most prolific scorer all time are the prime candidates to fill the nets, but quite honestly, neither Emilio nor Moreno has been all that precise in front of goal lately. Even if the NE hero Doe plays for Moreno, he is obviously coming off an outstanding game, but really doesn’t mesh well with Emilio, and at any rate, the Crew’s central defense is as good as it gets in MLS.
So, not only will DC’s forwards be marked well, but crosses into the box are likely to be futile against the tall trees in the Crew defense, as will solely looking for counter attacks to get a numerical advantage against a very savvy team that rarely gets out of shape. Which means DC will need to have the possession advantage, as well as get Fred and Quaranta slashing in behind them or unbalancing them as the most likely ways to find success, unless Emilio just takes it upon himself to have a monster game or Moreno chalks up his 100th assist.
So barring their heroics, Quaranta outplaying Carroll and Fred outplaying Padula are likely to be the crucial elements for DC to find the back of the net. Santino has been the team MVP all season, but has not shot the ball well lately, nor linked up that well with the offense over the past month., while Fred has missed more sitters than Sigi has had hot meals. So, those two in particular need to be on their best behavior in front of goal, or DC may well struggle and end up right in the lumber yard instead of the playoffs.
Even some of the intangibles go DC’s way too. United has lost only once in Columbus since 2005 going 3-1-1 over their last five games there. Also the Crew have never swept DC for the season. DC has won at least one game over the Crew every year except the appalling 2002 season. Unfortunately, that’s not much to consolation as Columbus is actually the best home team (most points at home), and DC is one of the worst away teams in this season (two wins both over the Fire). Still, at least DC has some reasonably good recent memories of Crew Stadium to fall back on.
So, there it is. DC controls their own destiny. They have the motivation and the ability to see themselves into the promised land and at least save themselves from the humiliation of going from a pre-season Cup favorite to missing the postseason altogether. Granted the playoffs were a minimum in those heady days early in the season, but after this roller coaster season merely being in contention for the MLS Cup given all that’s happened would be a refreshing boost for the jaded and demanding RFK faithful.
There’s also another carrot dangling in front of United, too. If they win, they’ll face Houston, which normally wouldn’t be so promising a situation, but Houston lost in the Champion’s League this week, and now will have a crucial CCL game in El Salvador a few days before the first playoff game which they really need to win in order to have any chance of advancing. So, they will be distracted a bit and certainly being doing a lot of traveling and lineup juggling during their first round series which would begin in DC.
Now obviously, beating the Dynamo is a stretch of the imagination to begin with, but if DC can somehow get past Houston, then the path to the MLS Cup really does get a lot easier as the rest of the West is no where near as strong as the East. But, as tantalizing as all that speculation and prayer is, unless United does the business in Columbus tomorrow night and wins the last game of the season for the first time since 2004, none of those scenarios mean anything.
Bottom line, it’s all on the table. DC wins and gets to go after the two time defending champions in a home and home series with a decent amount of pride intact. Lose and a long off season full of recriminations and finger pointing begins, and they’ll have the added humiliation of having actually handed a playoff spot to NY. That’s too horrible to imagine.