Quest for a repeat

Columbus Crew vs. Real Salt Lake, Game 1Rio Tinto Stadium; Sat. Oct. 31 @ 6 p.m.Columbus Crew vs. Real Salt Lake, Game 2Crew Stadium; Thurs. Nov. 5 @ 8 p.m.Players to watch:Columbus – Chad Marshall. The 2008 Defender of the Year has sat out the last six MLS regular season games recovering from a knee injury. A healthy Marshall could make the difference for a team struggling to regain its mid-season formReal Salt Lake – Robbie Findley. The Real Salt Lake forward leads his team in goals with 12 on the season and was instrumental in securing Real Salt Lake’s spot in the playoffs with a two goal performance against rival Colorado Rapids.Key to the Match:Crew coach Robert Warzycha’s ability to find the right 11 players to begin the playoffs. Like a baseball manager trying to push the right buttons, Warzycha has tweaked his rotation at an almost dizzying pace. Perhaps a more settled lineup in the playoffs will see an increase in goals over the drought suffered toward the end of the regular season. This is a must in a series that is decided by aggregate goal totals. The MLS Cup playoffs are upon us. Following the regular season finale played in Columbus between the Crew and the New England Revolution, the once muddied playoff waters have cleared.The Columbus Crew (13-7-10) will limp into the playoffs, losers of three of their last four. The team is riddled with injuries, and failed to net a single goal in any of the losses.The Crew’s road to repeating their championship win begins Saturday at Rio Tinto Stadium in Utah against Real Salt Lake (11-12-7) in the first match of their Eastern Conference Semifinal Series. Conference Semifinal series are conducted in a home-and-home, aggregate-goal format. The lower-seeded team, Real Salt Lake, hosts the first game. The winners of the first four series advance to single-game Conference Championships that determine the MLS Cup finalists, according to the MLS rules of competition.By virtue of their victory over Columbus, New England (11-10-9) leapfrogged Real Salt Lake and will face the Chicago Fire (11-7-12) in their own semi-final series.Columbus coach Robert Warzycha addressed his team’s lack of recent scoring after the Crew’s defeat.“We have a week before the game. We have to look at the tape and find out what the best combination [of players] is going to be,” Warzycha said.His propensity to shift lineups is well documented this season. Last year’s coach, Sigi Schmid, attempted to use the same starting 11 down the stretch. Warzycha has not shown the same willingness to do so. He hasn’t always had a choice.“I don’t know who that 11 are going to be,” Warzycha said. “Hopefully, everyone gets a chance in the playoffs but the best thing would be to have one team. Knowing life, it’s not going to be possible.”“We’re not taking the momentum into the playoffs that we’d like to, but we’re capable of beating anyone,” Crew midfielder Adam Moffat said.So with the Supporter’s Shield, given annually to the team with the best regular season record, and home-field advantage throughout the MLS playoffs already in hand, was there a lack of motivation against the Revolution?“It was a game we still wanted,” Crew goalkeeper William Hesmer said. “You want to get into a rhythm.”Regardless of the lack of success at the regular season’s end, the Crew have much to be proud of. They are only the second team in MLS history to record two consecutive Supporter’s Shields, joining D.C. United who accomplished the repeat in 2006-07.“This team is making a statement winning last year and being first this year,” Warzycha said of his club. “This team doesn’t have to prove anything to anybody.”The Crew have played two matches against their first playoff opponent, Real Salt Lake, this season. The two teams split the regular season matchups with one win each.Crew captain Frankie Hejduk spoke about the club’s first round matchup.“We’re the champions,” Hejduk said. “We should be able to beat everyone. We’re going to have to go there prepared for a battle.”Even with so many questions lingering over the Crew concerning their health, their lineup and a sudden loss of scoring punch, there is another old sports adage that the other MLS playoff teams must reckon with: to be the best, you have to beat the best.At least for now, the Crew are the best.

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