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Eastern Conference Championship

Decisions loom as Crew's playoff hopes hang in balance

Warzycha, DC banner

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OBETZ, Ohio – Center back Julius James will not play against his former team because of a hamstring injury, but otherwise, the Columbus Crew are healthy heading into Saturday’s match at D.C. United (7:30 pm ET, watch LIVE online).

James is likely to be replaced by Carlos Mendes, who has 10 starts in 2012 but has not made an appearance since a hamstring strain forced him out of a match against New England on Aug. 25.

“There’s no choice,” head coach Robert Warzycha told MLSsoccer.com on Friday. “[Mendes] is the guy who can play. He’s going to play.”

Of course, what the coach says to the media often differs from the actual lineup and there are options. Josh Williams, who suffered a concussion in the Crew’s last match on Oct. 7, has been medically cleared, but Warzycha prefers to keep him at left back.

READ: Who's in? Playoff scenarios for MLS' penultimate weekend

WATCH: D.C. on crucial East matchup

Defensive midfielder Danny O’Rourke is returning from a one-game suspension and is likely to stay at his normal spot. If he were to move to the central defense, though, Chris Birchall could assume his role.

The Crew are fortunate to be near full strength because they are in a precarious position: They can’t clinch a playoff berth with a win, but a loss potentially could eliminate them before the season finale on Oct. 28.

Columbus (14-11-7, 49 points) are sixth in the Eastern Conference and trail fifth-place Houston by one point for the final spot. New York are fourth at 53 and D.C. United are third with 54. All three also have a pair of games left and each hold the tiebreakers over the Crew.

A Columbus loss or tie would end any chance of catching D.C. or New York and their playoff hopes would remain viable only if Houston do not win at home against Philadelphia the same night.

The numbers don’t favor the Crew, who followed a four-game winning streak from Aug. 22 to Sept. 1 with a 2-3-1 stretch.

They also have only a win and a tie in their past six road games and have dropped three straight away matches.

READ: Frenzy builds as DC finally back on brink of postseason

Ironically, in their past two away matches they got off to ideal starts but quickly faded. Milovan Mirosevic put them ahead in the third minute against New York on Sept. 15, but Thierry Henry countered six minutes later with the first of his two scores in the 3-1 defeat.

A week later, Jairo Arrieta’s goal in the 15th minute staked the Crew to the lead, but Chicago’s Chris Rolfe decided the match with a brace in the 23rd and 26th minutes.

“If we are able to score in the first minutes, we have to be mature enough to say, ‘OK, we are going to play good but we have to keep it to zero in the back,’” Mirosevic said. “When the other team starts getting desperate, that’s when we have to start pushing again. We haven’t been doing that, those two games for example, and at the end we lost. When you have maturity, you don’t do that.”