COLUMBUS, OH - AUGUST 13: Dilly Duka #11 of the Columbus Crew leaps over goalkeeper Matt Reis #1 of the New England Revolution after Reis makes a save in the second half on August 13, 2011 at Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. Columbus defeated New England 3-1. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
The New England Revolution will face off against the Columbus Crew in the 2011 home finale at Gillette Stadium. Revs fans who have had precious little to cheer about this year will be hoping for a decent send-off, but optimism is not likely to be the order of the day. New England hasn't even earned a point since September 10th. Columbus, meanwhile, is coming off a win over DC United that snapped a winless streak pushing back into August. Unlike the Revs, however, the Crew occupy an automatic playoff position as the third-placed team in the East.
New England has further reason to try and make this match, as well as the regular season finale in Toronto next week, count for all the points. Right now, they sit ignominiously at the foot of the league table with the lowest points total in MLS. The Vancouver Whitecaps have put together two straight victories to vault up to 28 points, and also have six wins. Both totals outrank the Revs, who sit on 27 points with only five wins. Without results from Saturday's and next weekend's match, New England risks setting this season's benchmark for futility in MLS. They also risk setting the franchise benchmark for futility: if the Revs don't win out, they will set a new team record for the fewest wins in one season. As it stands, winning out will still tie that mark, originally set in 2001.
Today's Q&A is with Patrick Guldan of Massive Report, a Columbus Crew blog that will soon be featured on SB Nation.
TBM: Columbus has been a team nearly impossible to figure out all year. Robert Warzycha basically cleared everybody out and started over, and it looks like the road has alternated between rocky and smooth almost on a whim. And yet, for all the inconsistency, the last two matches see Columbus not only fighting for a playoff spot, but in the running for the East crown. What has been the key to this team staying competitive in a season so obviously full of setbacks and uncertainty? What has really held it all together to get to this point?
PG: That is a very good question and one that I don't think anyone can really answer. It comes down to a few things. The defense was very solid most of the year and that certainly helped keep the team in games. William Hesmer, Chad Marshall, and the rest of the defense have kept most games close. The recent slide is directly attributable to the slide on defense. Eddie Gaven has been a workhorse on both sides of the ball. This is a different team when he is in the line up. He creates a lot of chances despite having 0 assists. He also has 5 goals on the year. He's a good bet to be team MVP as he does all of the little things that give the Crew a slight edge.
The Crew has also had new players chip in at the right time. Rich Balchan was very solid in the first half of the year until he picked up several injuries. Josh Gardner also stepped up and played a very solid left back when Balchan went down. Julius James has exceeded almost everyone's expectations and Sebastian Miranda has been a very good right back. I think generally, it comes down to a good mix of vets and youth that appear to have bought into the program. There appears to be a very unified locker room. The new veteran leadership has been willing to step up and challenge players or give them guidance. Hesmer, O'Rourke, Miranda and the like will certainly keep the big picture in sight. Jeff Cunningham has worked tirelessly with the youthful striker corps to hone those skills after practice. They really seem to fight for each other most nights.
TBM: I seem to remember hearing pundits talk about the disappointment of Andres Mendoza earlier this year, saying that he's not living up to DP billing and he isn't worth the money or the roster spot. Now, with two games to go in the season, he's in the top ten in league goals scored with 11 and has also tallied 2 assists in 27 matches, which isn't a poor return by anyone's standards. Looking back now, do you think he has been as important to this club as his standing and salary would dictate, or do you believe he has still underachieved?
PG: Again, this is another case where the you won't find any agreement. Andres Mendoza is maddeningly inconsistent. He has games where he can't miss with his left foot. He's active on offense and defense. Then there are games where it looks like he's asleep. He has a good look at goal and shoots right at the keeper. His general demeanor is aloof and his pulse never appears to go over 70. Quite a few of his goals are also from PKs. He also has no right foot at all. I think most wouldn't mind him if he wasn't a DP and would rather see a different player earning that type of salary.
TBM: Give us an under-the-radar player Revs fans should watch out for in this match.
PG: Eddie Gaven is almost always overlooked. He's fully healthy and is a difference maker. He will connect on passes and get players into dangerous positions. He'll drift toward the center from the right side and help out Ekpo and the defensive midfielder (O'Rourke, Balchan, Burns depending on availability). He could probably add something to the USMNT.
Sebastian Miranda is probably more overlooked. He's a veteran who plays a very good defensive right back. He is even better with Gaven screening him further up field. He can serve in a dangerous free/corner kick and is good with the ball at his feet. He is probably the best offseason pickup for the Crew.
TBM: Who do you think the Crew fear most on the pitch for New England?
PG: Benny Feilhaber earns this honor. The Crew are soft in midfield and he can operate in the spaces between the forwards and midfield. His ball control and vision certainly can cause the Crew plenty of trouble. He has already gotten a goal against Columbus once this year and is the type of player that they have trouble accounting for.
TBM: Finally, let's have your projected starting XI and a scoreline prediction.
PG: Here is the first probable first choice lineup:
Withdrawn Forward: Mendoza
Center Forward: Renteria
Injury Notes: Marshall, Renteria, O'Rourke, and Balchan are all on the injury list to some extent. If Marshall is out, O'Rourke will play RCB. If Renteria is out, Heinemann will slot in. If Balchan can play, he'll replace Francis (or O'Rourke if Marshall is out).
Scoreline: The Crew always struggles on turf and tend to make things difficult for themselves. I expect 2-1 Crew though.