With the Eastern Conference title safely tucked away, the Columbus Crew travel to the Meadowlands to take on the MetroStars on Saturday with hopes of garnering the Supporters Shield - the award for having the best MLS regular season record. Columbus leads the Kansas City Wizards, who play at San Jose on Saturday, by two points as both teams have two games remaining.
The Crew clinched their first Eastern Conference crown at Chicago on Wednesday with a 1-0 victory, but the lone goal was a beauty. After Jeff Cunningham was fouled just on the edge of the area, Simon Elliott tapped a short pass that Edson Buddle rocketed into the upper corner of the goal. As Fire goalkeeper Henry Ring dove to his left, the ball continued to swerve away from his reach.
"That was an unbelievable shot. He has been an option (on free kicks) for the last couple of games because he has been striking the ball so well in practices," said Columbus Crew coach Greg Andrulis. "We have a lot of good options and a lot of times it comes down to who demands the ball. Edson did and he hit a terrific ball. It should be a goal-of-the-year candidate."
Andrulis must decide the importance of winning the Supporters Shield, maintaining the momentum of their MLS record 16-game unbeaten streak in their run to a first MLS Cup title, and resting players who have logged substantial minutes over the course of the season.
"We need to get sharp for the playoffs. We still have the Supporters Shield which is a goal of ours. We want to keep the streak going. We have enough incentives in front of us," said the Black & Gold boss. "We need to balance that by making sure that guys that are bumped up get some rest. We want to stay sharp going into the playoffs. We don't want to take any backwards steps."
While it appears likely that Jon Busch and the backline will be kept intact from Wednesday night, changes are expected to be made in the midfield. Attacker David Testo is expected to give the right flank in midfield a go.
"I think I'll be playing in the midfield this weekend, which is good to get me more experience there," said Testo. "With our forwards, it is tough to get some time there."
That move will give New Jersey native Danny Szetela a chance to move back into the central midfield after starting in an outside midfield role against the Fire. With Elliott expected to rest his tired Achilles tendons on the artificial pitch of Giants' Stadium, Andrulis must decide to either push Kyle Martino back to his withdrawn forward position or look to someone as Manny Lagos for the last central midfielder in Andrulis's 3-5-2 scheme.
For the first time since Martino began playing as a forward, he started in the midfield on Wednesday as Buddle and Jeff Cunningham were paired up top. The combination didn't appear exceptionally fluid so Martino may switch back to being an attacker.
Still, Columbus will be hoping to earn three points on the road again and keep the pole position for the best record during the MLS regular season.
"The Supporters Shield is out there for having the best record in the league. We will see what we can do in the last couple games to see if we can get the best record in the league," Andrulis said.
John Kuhn is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Soccer or its clubs.