The schedule says the playoffs start after the final five games of the regular season.
One look at the Eastern Conference standings indicates that Saturday night's match between the New England Revolution and Columbus Crew might just start the postseason festivities a few weeks early.
Five points separate the first-place Crew from the second-place Revolution. New England likely needs a victory to keep its hopes alive for an Eastern Conference title.
"It's like a playoff game," Revolution midfielder Jeff Larentowicz said. "It's a big swing for us in terms of going towards the Supporters' Shield and closing out the season. They've had our number this season and they've made a lot of improvements. We know we need to be that much better."
The Crew's 4-0 victory against the Revs on Sept. 6 might have inspired the Revs to improve themselves. Better results -- a 4-0 win against Chivas USA and a 1-1 draw in Colorado -- followed that game as the team finally wound down from the hectic summer months.
Despite the heavy reverse three weekends ago, Nicol said his team isn't focused on extracting revenge.
"We're not interested in that," Nicol said. "We're interested in winning the game [Saturday]. We always want to go into the playoffs doing well and being on a good run. We spoke about starting about that at home to Chivas USA. We got a good point in Colorado last weekend. We want to keep up that good run heading into the playoffs. That's our main objective."
That run of form has coincided with a nine-day layoff between games and the return to health of strikers Kenny Mansally and Kheli Dube.
"It's good to have everyone back competing and getting their strength back coming into the fun part of the season," Revs striker Taylor Twellman said.
Not everyone is ready to factor against the Crew. Doug Warren is out for at least the next two to three weeks with an elbow injury. Khano Smith will also miss out after picking up a hamstring injury. Mauricio Castro will take his spot on the left side of Nicol's anticipated 4-4-2 formation.
"He obviously felt it last week," Nicol said of his lanky left winger. "He hasn't pulled it or anything like that, but a hamstring isn't something you can take a chance with. In these conditions and this time of year, you're done for the rest of the year. It'd be silly to take a chance on him."
Nicol did catch a break with news that Crew midfielder Guillermo Barros Schelotto did not travel with the team. Barros Schelotto has missed the last two games with a left hamstring injury, but the Crew -- 5-0-1 in its past six games -- haven't skipped a beat with Pat Noonan pulling the strings.
Larentowicz said Barros Schelotto's absence will force the Revs to adapt.
"Barros Schelotto is more of a wild card," Larentowicz said. "Not to take anything away from Pat because Pat's a tricky player, but it's just different. Barros Schelotto can end up anywhere. He can go to sleep for five minutes and then he pops up and creates a goal or scores a goal. Pat's a tricky player, but sometimes, you have a better idea where he is going to be."
The heavy rain anticipated in the Boston area on Saturday might have made both managers more reluctant to risk their hamstrung midfielders. Nicol said his team will have to proceed cautiously on the slippery surface if the conditions turn foul.
"You can't afford to gamble on things," Nicol said. "We'll have to be neat and tidy. We'll have to keep things within a certain distance or else we'll be losing the ball. If we keep the ball well, it'll be difficult for them. The conditions will be difficult for them. When it's wet, it means you can move the ball quickly. If we're on our game, we can use that to our advantage."
Kyle McCarthy is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.