Crew SC goal celebration-CLB-DC-3.24.18

OBETZ, Ohio – Columbus Crew SC are unbeaten in seven games and sit just one point back in the Supporters Shield race, but in an extremely competitive Eastern Conference, the team will have to navigate through a daunting three-game stretch if they want to remain at the top — and prove they belong there.

Columbus face defending champs Toronto FC Saturday (7:30 pm ET | TSN 1/3/4/5 - Full TV & Streaming info), and after a midweek U.S. Open Cup game against the Chicago Fire, they’ll have to play the New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United — the two teams with the highest points-per-game marks in the league – in a span of four days.

For Crew SC coach Gregg Berhalter, the stretch is one where he can learn about his rapidly gelling team. He said he’s “excited about having these big games.”

“You know it’s a good test – you know you’re entering a period where you’re going to be tested both from a depth standpoint and from a quality standpoint,” he said. “Right now, the focus is purely on how we get past a tough Toronto team and how we beat a Toronto team who’s coming here motivated to get a result and needing to get a result.”

But for veteran defender Josh Williams, an ex-Toronto player himself, the run of Eastern Conference opponents isn’t daunting, it’s “fun,” and a chance for Columbus to send a message.

“We (were) tied for the most points in the league, so we want to prove week-in and week-out that we are a top team in this league,” he said. “With all the things going on outside of the team and outside of the locker room, this is our time to prove to the rest of the league that we’ve got something special building here.”

Williams said the “headlines” had been ignoring the team’s form lately, which he said he and the team see as a slight during their impressive start to 2018.

“It’s almost a slap in the face,” he said. “We feel that we’re playing a good brand of soccer; we’re playing soccer the right way and how we’ve wanted to play for a long time. For us, it’s another chance to prove that we belong in the upper echelon of this league.”

Despite the powerhouses in the East, Berhalter isn’t willing to say the conference is any stronger than the West.

“This season just started,” he said. “We’re not far into this thing at all, and there are a lot of things that are going to take place between now and the end of the season that will change that.”

But he did admit that in the star-studded east, “some potential playoff matches” involving “some big early games” are already “nice to think about.”

And as the season progresses, he said the conference should be even more fun than last season.

“Last year, Toronto took control early on and never lost that control,” he said. “So it’s nice now that you have some congestion there. It’s going to be good to see how things play out.”