Crew View: Columbus not just fighting for first in the East

Gabriel Farfan and Justin Meram

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COLUMBUS, Ohio – Crew captain Chad Marshall sounded the warning following the unexpected loss to Toronto FC nine days ago, imploring his teammates that making the playoffs — not first place in the Eastern Conference — should be Columbus' goal during a rough stretch run.

Apparently, his words have not been heeded. Two games and just one more point later, the Crew are barely holding onto the top spot in the Eastern Conference, a position they have led or shared since July 23.

Yet, despite three losses and a tie in the past four games the Crew (11-10-8, 41 points) are still a point clear of Sporting Kansas City while Philadelphia and Houston are two back.

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“We can’t panic,” midfielder Danny O’Rourke said. “Fortunately, we’ve had some results by the other teams go our way and we’re still in first place.”

On the other hand, Columbus squandered opportunities this month against teams they’ve historically had great success. Instead of putting distance between themselves and the pack, they’ve come back to the group and are on the verge of being overtaken if the slump persists.

To wit:

• They had not lost to Toronto in 13 games all-time until the 4-2 setback on Sept. 10.

• Houston had not scored on them in the previous three meetings and were winless in five games in the series, but got a late goal to tie 10-man Columbus 2-2 last Wednesday.

• They had won the first three games vs. the Union, including 2-1 at home on Aug. 20, but fell 1-0 Saturday in PPL Park.

That last loss caused O’Rourke to issue his own warning after the match.

“We’re not only playing for the East but we’re also fighting for the playoffs,” he said.

And they’re fighting to be among the top three in the East in order to avoid being one of the four wild cards that have a one-game play-in to get to the conference semifinals. Should they be overtaken, that could mean a one-game trip to a tough Western Conference foe like FC Dallas or the Colorado Rapids.

As it stands, the Crew are five points clear of the final playoff berth with five matches left, including Saturday against the Supporters’ Shield frontrunning LA Galaxy.

By the numbers

360 – Combined minutes in two games last week for O’Rourke and defender Shaun Francis after they had totaled only 25 minutes to that point of the season thanks to a series of injuries.

18 – Times allowing the first goal (3-10-5), tying Houston (3-8-7) for the most in MLS.

10 – Shutouts suffered by the Crew this season in 29 games.

9 – Shutouts suffered in 30 games last season.

7 – Shutouts suffered on the road this season in 14 games.

3 – Consecutive road losses to drop to 3-8-3 in away matches.