With two matches left, the Crew can still claim the regular season crown

Technically, two matches remain this week before the Columbus Crew’s postseason campaign begins in earnest. But as this unorthodox season hurtles to its conclusion, it sure feels like the playoffs are already here.

It’s not like the Crew is facing elimination. The team clinched its postseason berth two weeks ago. Yet Sunday’s 2-1 win against the Philadelphia Union crackled with playoff electricity because it was a clash of titans with hardware hanging in the balance. 

Despite a run of poor form this fall, Columbus can still mathematically win the Supporters Shield, awarded to the team with the best regular season record, and secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. It would be the Crew’s fourth time claiming the Shield following wins 2004, 2008 and 2009.

(The fan committee in charge of the Shield briefly decided not to award it this year — due to the schedule irregularities related to the pandemic, and because fans largely haven’t been able to cheer on their teams in person — but a loud public outcry led to a vote that reversed that decision, which would have taken some of the shine out of a first-place finish despite arguably a more strenuous season than ever.) 

First-place Philadelphia, which joined MLS as an expansion team in 2010, has an even better shot at the Shield. The Union could have essentially clinched it for the first time in franchise history by beating the Black & Gold in Sunday’s showdown. But Philadelphia didn’t, and the result might have altered both teams’ momentum.

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While the Crew was waning this autumn, the Union ascended. Philly took over pole position in the Shield race in emphatic fashion, drubbing first-place Toronto 5-0 just a week before arriving in Columbus. The team came into a windy, snowy Mapfre Stadium riding high. Meanwhile, the Crew was playing with all its stars healthy for the first time in months and seeking to regain the mojo that had it atop the league not so long ago. Beyond its impact on the official standings, this was a chance to establish momentum and a psychological edge heading into the playoffs.

The Crew didn’t exactly click like it did at its midseason peak. Attacking stars Gyasi Zardes and Lucas Zelarayán came up empty. Captain Jonathan Mensah was uncharacteristically sloppy in central defense, conceding the penalty that led to Philly’s only goal. Columbus might have allowed several more if not for a series of highlight-reel saves by Eloy Room — and it might not have scored at all if Philly’s elite goalkeeper Andre Blake hadn’t been sidelined, leaving hapless former Crew backup Joe Bendik in net for the Union.

Columbus took full advantage of Bendik’s vulnerability Sunday. First came a 37th-minute wormburner from Artur, who until two weeks ago only had one goal in four years with the Crew and now has three. Then came a late game-winner from newly acquired Kristian Nemeth, who converted his first touch of the match in the 84th minute on a cross from fellow substitute Luis Diaz.

If the Crew’s gut-check victory Sunday was neither dominant nor glamorous, it was enough for now. “It wasn’t perfect,” Coach Caleb Porter said afterwards, “but it was definitely a playoff-type game.” Columbus proved Sunday that it can grind out a win against tough competition even when playing less than its best.

This will be a useful quality for the postseason, and it may come in handy sooner. On Wednesday the Crew has a road match at Orlando City SC, which currently sit even on points with Columbus. A victory in Florida would have a similar confidence-building effect heading into the playoffs. It would also put the Crew in position to win the Shield on the final day of this topsy-turvy season, when it hosts Atlanta United FC, if both Toronto and Philly stumble in their respective matches.

That’s a longshot, but who could honestly write off any possibility in 2020? And if these last two matches don’t result in a Supporters’ Shield for Columbus, the jockeying for playoff position should yield some intensely entertaining soccer all the same.