The Columbus Crew play host to the Chicago Fire on Saturday evening in their final home game of the season, the first game of a home-and-home series over four days between the teams. But perhaps more importantly, the back end of the two-game set begins a three-game road swing for the Crew to finish the season.
Crew head coach Greg Andrulis is not particularly happy with the busy schedule his team is facing for next week.
"This is an oddity in the schedule where we had to move a game (the Wednesday game was rescheduled from earlier this summer). Clearly, you don't want to play three games in six days to begin with," said Andrulis. "All these games are very meaningful. We would like to have some rest and preparation time in between, but it is what it is. We'll get on the horse and ride it."
The Crew, which last lost in league play on June 26, put their 14-game unbeaten streak on the line against the club that gave them their lone blemish over the last three months, a 2-1 victory for Chicago in the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup on July 20.
Additionally, the Crew are looking to secure the Eastern Conference title, which would guarantee that they host the Conference Final should they advance from the first round. A win coupled with a MetroStars' loss to D.C. United would leave Columbus as top seed.
On the other hand, the Fire are still searching for a playoff berth. The scenario looks good after beating New England last week and they could clinch on Saturday if they win and the Revolution lose or tie to Dallas.
Besides the crucial points available, this weekend's match offers one of the last chances for the Crew to see the normal starting 11 on the pitch before the playoffs. Tony Sanneh and Frankie Hejduk will miss the following two games while serving the U.S. national team in their upcoming World Cup qualifiers against El Salvador and Panama.
Andrulis does not like missing to two regulars down the stretch of the regular season, but also thinks his team should be able to respond to missing players for a few games.
"I think we have put ourselves in position that we can hopefully handle whatever bumps that come along," he said. "Inevitably, there are bumps whether they are a red card like Ryan Nelsen got (sent off for D.C. after getting two yellow cards against the Crew in their last game), or an injury. You prep the whole season to be ready at the right time."
Although not necessarily happy about the timing, Andrulis acknowledges that national team duty is also significant: "Not having Frankie and Tony for a couple games is not what you want at this point in the season, but we understand. Going with the national team is a very important commitment."
While the Crew will have their starting lineup disrupted for the second game, the Fire will be missing several regulars for the first game. Already without Ante Razov and Justin Mapp because of injuries, the Fire will miss Andy Williams and Chris Armas, just back from a knee injury, for the match in Columbus because of accumulated caution points.
However, the Crew will not overlook their decimated rivals. "Every team is relatively deep these days. The league is tight. From top to bottom in both divisions is tight," said Crew midfielder Duncan Oughton. "There will be two very tough games -- it always is against Chicago. It is always a battle. We'll just try to keep on rolling along."
John Kuhn is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.