By AVI CREDITOR
Both the Columbus Crew and Colorado Rapids suffered different forms of heartbreak in their respective regular season finales.
For Columbus, starting goalkeeper Will Hesmer fractured his shoulder in a victory over Philadelphia, leaving a massive gap in the back for the 2008 MLS Cup champions. For Colorado, two stoppage time goals by Alvaro Saborio stole the Rocky Mountain Cup from the jaws of victory and handed it back to Real Salt Lake, bumping the Rapids down in the postseason table in the process.
Not like that's necessarily a bad thing.
Instead of having to face the Supporters' Shield-winning Los Angeles Galaxy, which would have been the case had they won their finale, the Rapids booked themselves a date with the beaten-up, out-of-form Crew.
The Rapids might boast one of the league's top strike tandems, and the Crew may be down to its backup keeper, but don't pencil Colorado into the conference finals just yet. The resolve of an experience-laden, disrespected former champion is something that should not be underestimated.
Here is a closer look at the series:
COLUMBUS CREW VS. COLORADO RAPIDS
Teams split season series (June 5: Rapids 1, Crew 0; Aug. 21: Crew 3, Rapids 1)
First leg – Thursday night, 9 p.m., ESPN2
Second leg – Sat., Nov. 6, 4 p.m., Telefutura
KEY MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Omar Cummings and Conor Casey vs. Chad Marshall and Andy Iro: This is likely where the series is to be decided. Colorado's attack relies heavily on the play of its two star strikers. Cummings (14 goals) and Casey (13) form a 1-2 combination of speed and size that is perhaps the most daunting in the league. If Marshall, the two-time defending Defensive Player of the Year, and Iro can neutralize them and shield backup keeper Andy Gruenebaum, the Crew should move on.
Guillermo Barros Schelotto vs. Pablo Mastroeni: It's no secret that Schelotto is the straw that stirs the Crew's drink. The Argentine playmaker didn't necessarily have one of his trademark years, but that doesn't mean it was a bad one (nine goals, 10 assists). For the Rapids to make sure he doesn't leave his mark on the series, their veteran defensive midfielder will have to be at his best.
Eddie Gaven and Robbie Rogers vs. Brian Mullan and Jamie Smith: From a talent standpoint, the Crew should have the advantage on the flanks, which would really assist Schelotto in facilitating the attack. Gaven finished the regular season in solid form, but Rogers is still rounding into shape after returning from a knee injury. If the Columbus midfield tandem can keep possession, add width to the attack and prevent Mullan and Smith from providing consistent service to their forwards, the advantage goes to the Crew.
For Colorado, Brian Mullan has a championship pedigree unlike any other player on the roster, which is why the team acquired him prior to the trade deadline. He's been a part of four MLS Cup champions (Los Angeles, San Jose and Houston twice), and the experience and leadership he brings to the table are intangibles that are paramount for a team with little historical success in the postseason. Mullan's presence could help offset the Crew's experience advantage and lift the Rapids to the next round.
For Columbus, Andy Gruenebaum likely never thought that he'd be in the position where he currently finds himself. The injury to Hesmer has thrust the keeper into the fire, and while he has CONCACAF Champions League experience and a more-than-capable defense in front of him, he's never played in conditions like these, especially while going against two in-form strikers. The opening minutes in a hostile environment on Thursday night should be very telling.
The Crew seem primed to be upset after limping to the finish line, but positive results in its most recent CONCACAF Champions League match and in the MLS regular season finale might lead some to believe that Robert Warzycha's side has momentum on its side. The loss of Hesmer definitely is a big setback, and the series will ultimately hinge on whether the Crew can thwart the Casey-and-Cummings-led attack of the Rapids.
Who do you think will advance from this series? Cast your vote here:
How did you vote? Do you see Gruenebaum holding up in Hesmer's place? Thnk the Rapids have too much in attack for the Crew to handle?
Share your thoughts below.