It’s hard to argue that the Columbus Crew doesn’t have more to play for Sunday against Eastern Conference-leading Sporting Kansas City in a critical late-season showdown.
Coach Peter Vermes’ squad clinched a playoff spot by beating the Chicago Fire last week, while the Crew has three games to try and move up from sixth place to snag at one of the conference’s five postseason berths.
Columbus, 14-11-6, trailed the Houston Dynamo by a point with three games remaining for both teams entering the weekend.
Coupled with the fact that the Crew will dedicate a memorial to rookie midfielder Kirk Urso, who died Aug. 5 from a congenital heart defect, before the game, Columbus Crew Stadium ought to have an electric atmosphere for the 3 p.m. kickoff.
Sporting KC’s challenge will be to match Columbus’ intensity.
Then again, that’s not a dramatic change for Sporting KC, 17-7-7, which has the best road record in MLS at 8-4-3.
“Every game that we go into,” Vermes said, “it is about us matching the intensity of the other team and then trying to physically outdo them.
“I’m sure we’re in for a very strong battle on Sunday. I expect them to open up the game and come at us. Maybe not high press us, but I expect them to send numbers forward and not be conservative.”
Sporting KC claimed a decisive 2-0 win July 14 in the season’s first meeting against the Crew, which also was in Columbus.
But the Crew repaid the favor July 28 with a 2-1 win at Livestrong Sporting Park.
“It will be a tough game for us and a tough game for Sporting Kansas City as well, but our mentality doesn’t really change,” Columbus assistant coach Ricardo Iribarren said.
In fact, he rankled at the notion that the Crew are a desperate team.
“We still have three games to go and two at home with one at D.C. as well, so we’re not desperate yet,” Iribarren said. “We’ve just got to keep doing what we’ve been doing.”
D.C. United, which beat Toronto FC 1-0 on Saturday and moved within four points of the conference lead with 54 points, is among the clubs Columbus hopes to leapfrog down the stretch.
Sporting KC, of course, remains convinced — and rightfully so — that it will see a desperate side, as the Crew can ill afford to come away without any points.
Even a draw could be a death knell for Columbus’ postseason hopes.
In a sense, the Chicago Fire probably did Sporting KC a favor with its 2-0 win Saturday against the New York Red Bulls, which tightened the Eastern Conference race to two points again.
Without a win, Sporting KC will have a nervous few weeks with MLS play headed for a short break during the upcoming World Cup qualifying window.
Leading by five points with only two remaining games would be a comfortable spot, while a two-point lead or three with a draw could make for a few sleepless nights for Vermes and company.
Sporting KC knows all that is at stake, so maybe there will be at least a hint of desperation for both sides.
“We’re also playing to keep our form, so that when we go in the playoffs there is no drop-off,” Vermes said. “When you take all those into consideration, I see it as a lot to play for us.”