Columbus Crew SC -- celebrate first goal
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Castillo: Ignore Columbus Crew SC in the postseason at your own peril

All six tickets from the Eastern Conference to the 2017 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs are booked at this point, and eyes have turned to seeding and the set-up going into the postseason ahead of next Sunday's Decision Day presented by AT&T. Naturally, most of the hype and breathlessness has swirled around the top three contenders – Supporters’ Shield winners Toronto FC, rising-star-studded New York City FC, and expansion heavyweights Atlanta United

They deserve the praise – but fans of those and any other playoff teams should be taking careful note of Columbus Crew SC, a playoff side more should be scared of. Columbus’ ascendance has mostly flown under the radar, a fact that probably owes to geography, the fact they’ve managed it without the flashiest names in the league, and their dismal 2016 season.

Indeed, the one-two punch of a home loss at the 2015 MLS Cup Final, followed by a long, slow skid over 2016, proved a recent nadir for the Crew. How head coach Gregg Berhalter and company managed to reverse that offers a guidebook to any future teams facing the same. 

Though it may have hurt like ripping away the proverbial bandage, Berhalter proved unafraid to trade away long-time club stalwarts Michael Parkhurst and Ethan Finlay. In their place, he snatched up both DPs and TAM-level players that helped shore up each part of the field – Jonathan Mensah on defense, and midfielders Mohammed Abu and Pedro Santos.   

Federico Higuain (arguably the more valuable Higuain brother to his teams, if you want to be trollish), and Ola Kamara mixed for a special sauce that’s produced a lot of goals. Just look at these numbers, courtesy of my colleague Ben Baer. His performance with this year’s squad has yielded such optimism that, even though many feared he would leave after 2017, he just extended his contract. There’s plenty to be said about Justin Meram, as well, who is among the top five midfielders in the league this year, handily serving up goals as well as distributing balls to his teammates. 

Add some rock-solid home form, and anyone visiting MAPFRE Stadium in the playoffs should come correct with their best. Crew SC clearly came into this year with focus and determination from the preseason that’s clearly played out on the field – no haphazardly stumbling into a berth here. If all goes according to Berhalter’s plan, the Columbus faithful can feel good about leaving 2016’s misery in their rear view.