By AVI CREDITOR
The Colorado Rapids and Columbus Crew each should have mixed emotions heading into Saturday's Eastern Conference semifinal second leg (4 p.m., Telefutura).
For the Rapids, they were the far better team in the opening leg, creating chances, exploiting space and getting top-notch play out of Conor Casey and Omar Cummings and stellar midfield performances on both sides of the ball from Pablo Mastroeni, Brian Mullan and Jeff Larentowicz.
While the strikers forced the Crew's defense to bend, though, they hardly forced it to break. Considering the amount of squandered opportunities they had in the attacking third, the Rapids can't feel entirely comfortable heading into Crew Stadium even with the aggregate advantage.
Although the Crew survived the onslaught and only yielded a 1-0 result, the veteran side also is not in a comfort zone. Despite being an experienced playoff team that will be playing in front of the home crowd, Columbus is on the verge of a second consecutive first-round exit (and leaving us with a San Jose-Colorado "Eastern" Conference final) unless the offensive rust and defensive liability shown at Dick's Sporting Goods Park has worn off.
Rapids coach Gary Smith made it evident in the opening leg that his gameplan was to attack rookie left back Shaun Francis. Cummings repeatedly made runs at and received passes in Francis' zone, and the Rapids were the more dangerous team for doing so.
If Robert Warzycha doesn't alter either his tactics or his personnel – i.e. start Gino Padula instead of Francis – the Crew could find itself on its heels once again. While Francis' pace is an attribute that Padula does not possess, the veteran's savvy and pitch awareness could trump Francis' speed in such a meaningful match. Andy Gruenebaum didn't have a bad performance in goal, but the more experienced and organized the defense is in front of him, the better.
Offensively, the Crew should consider handing the keys to Andres Mendoza up top. His introduction in the second half of last week's match coincided with a rejuvenation to the Crew attack, and he's a proven goal scorer. Even though Steven Lenhart is a capable finisher, he is far too inconsistent to be solely relied on by a team that needs to pack a punch from the opening whistle. The injury that has kept the in-form Emilio Renteria on the sidelines is turning out to be a huge factor in this series.
From the Rapids' standpoint, not much needs to be altered. Defensive midfielders Mastroeni and Larentowicz put the clamps down on Guillermo Barros Schelotto and the Crew attack while helping to spring the Rapids' offense. Casey and Cummings were relentless despite the efforts of Chad Marshall and Andy Iro, and more of the same should be expected. Casey perhaps looked to hold up the ball and pass more than he looked for his own shot, but if his unselfishness means more chances for Cummings, the Rapids can live with that.
As poor as its performance was in the opening leg, Columbus is very much alive in this series considering the one-goal deficit. Controlling the tempo from the start is a key, though, because if Schelotto, Eddie Gaven and Robbie Rogers lose the battle for possession with Mastroeni, Mullan and Larentowicz, then Cummings and Casey become even more dangerous and the Rapids can dictate how things unfold. The longer the Crew is held off the scoreboard, the more influential the memories of last year's exit at the hands of Real Salt Lake become; however, an early goal could fluster a Rapids team with little postseason success to its credit. The first 30 minutes or so will be crucial.
Do you see the Rapids holding on and advancing? What do you think the Crew has to do to take the series and advance?
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