After finishing the MLS regular season on an 18-game unbeaten streak, the Columbus Crew lost the opening game of their return to the MLS Cup Playoffs last Saturday, falling to the New England Revolution 1-0 by way of an outstanding strike by defender Avery John.
The Crew now face the return leg at Columbus Crew Stadium on Halloween, where they must win by two goals to guarantee their league-best regular season will not be tainted by a quick postseason.
The Crew were disappointed that the first game did not follow the regular season trend. Columbus, unbeaten against the Revolution in the regular season (2-0-2), was the league's best away team, earning 20 points in 15 matches and the having the best road goal differential while the Revolution were the worst home team, only garnering 21 points in 15 home matches. However, New England has become known for late season heroics under head coach Steve Nicol.
The Crew looked slow out of the gate Saturday against the energetic home side, but looked better as match progressed. A major part of that were the changes to the team made by Crew coach Greg Andrulis in the second half due to both injury and strategy.
Andrulis switched U.S. international Frankie Hejduk from the right to left flank in a move that allowed Hejduk to counter dangerous MLS veteran Steve Ralston and give Chris Wingert a platform to provide service from the right side of the field.
"We wanted to get a few more crosses (from the right). We felt that they wanted to compact the field a little bit," said Andrulis. "It was a good move for us. Chris (Wingert) ran out of gas after getting tackled violently."
After receiving a silly yellow card in the first half and not being involved with the play much, Edson Buddle was taken off minutes into the second half for Jeff Cunningham.
"We have a lot of different offensive weapons and we thought we would give it a little bit of a different look," said the coach of the Black-and-Gold. "Jeff had a very good 40 minutes and created a couple chances."
The game contained some harsh tackles that indicated the intensity of this hotly contested playoff match. "It is the playoffs and you are going to have tough tackles," said Andrulis.
The Crew were forced to look even deeper to the bench after Simon Elliott and Wingert were both tackled from behind and unable to finish the match. Late-season addition Dante Washington entered for Elliott and gave the Crew a different look up top while almost earning a penalty kick for this efforts.
"Dante was again a sub to replace an injured guy. We had to get Simon off the field because his ankle was injured from a tackle early in the game," said Andrulis. "I thought Dante was very dangerous."
The rapidly developing Danny Szetela entered late in the match for the hobbling Wingert and provided some good play. Szetela will likely see much more playing time in the second match.
While the severity of the injuries to Elliott and Wingert will still be evaluated during the week, Elliott should be fine for the return leg while Wingert may be out for a bit longer.
"I don't think Chris will be playing this weekend. It is doubtful that he will be available. Simon will probably be OK. It is more of an ankle sprain," said Andrulis.
Despite not playing one of their better games in recent memory, Columbus is only behind by one goal.
"We know we didn't play well, but we will move on. We are only down one goal so we know what we need to do. The bottom line is getting a result," said Crew goalkeeper Jon Busch.
At home this season, the Crew average nearly two goals a game and have not been shut out since May 1 in a scoreless draw against the Dallas Burn.
"It is a two-game series and now we know what we need to do at home," said Andrulis. "We are looking forward to the challenge in front of our fans."
John Kuhn is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.