OBETZ, Ohio – The Crew and their opponents Saturday in Rio Tinto Stadium share several traits.
Both are small-market teams that are enjoying success without digging deep into their pockets for Designated Players.
Columbus won the MLS Cup in 2008 and the Supporters’ Shield the past two years as the best regular-season club. Real Salt Lake dethroned Columbus in the first round of the playoffs last season en route to winning the MLS Cup.
The clubs have continued their winning ways, with the Crew (11-4-4, 37 points) trailing only overall leaders Los Angeles (12-3-4, 40) while Real Salt Lake (10-4-6, 36) are third.
“We know they’re a really good team,” forward Jason Garey said of RSL. “They have good players all over the field. They’ve kind of followed our model a little bit with they way they’ve structured their team.
“We have a lot of respect for them and I think they have a lot of respect for us,” he added. “It should be a really good battle, probably the game of the week.”
There’s another commonality between the franchises. From June 2008 until losing to Seattle Sounders FC in October, the Crew were unblemished at home in league play.
They established a record 22-game unbeaten streak (plus two more in the playoffs) at Crew Stadium to give the organization the hat trick. They also own the overall unbeaten mark (19) and for undefeated road games (nine).
Now, the home record is in jeopardy as the Royals have gone unbeaten in 20 regular-season games.
“I don’t care about the streak,” Crew coach Robert Warzycha said. “All I care about is winning the game. I don’t care how many games they have. That’s their problem. We’re not going there to stop the streak. We’re going there to play our game. We can’t put more pressure on ourselves than needed.”
The Crew don't want to be victim No. 21.
“It’s a good record to keep,” Crew midfielder Brian Carroll said. “At the end of the season, it helps but it’s not the end-all, be-all, but certainly we want to keep any records we have.”
The task won’t be easy.
RSL administered a humbling 4-1 defeat to the visiting Crew on April 2, 2009, and then took a 1-0 victory in the first leg of the playoffs before eliminating the Crew in Columbus in the return leg.
While Warzycha downplays thoughts of avenging those losses, his players won’t.
“We have the possibility to break their streak and keep ours,” forward Guillermo Barros Schelotto said. “We want revenge not because we lose in the playoffs on that field. We lost to them in the playoffs, so we have to take revenge for that.”
The Crew will be without midfielders Eddie Gaven (concussion), Robbie Rogers (knee) and defender Gino Padula (knee) but should have center back Chad Marshall available after he had an injection earlier this week to ease the inflammation in his troublesome right knee.
Although the game could have a major impact on the Supporters’ Shield race as the season heads into the final third, Warzycha is ambivalent.
He knows Real Salt Lake are recognized as the league champions, even though the Crew finished the regular season nine points ahead of RSL and were the No. 1 seed for the playoffs. RSL snuck into the eighth and final spot then pulled of a magical run for their first title.
“I learned you have to win the [MLS Cup] to keep guys like you [the media] off my back," Warzycha quipped, "so the Supporters’ Shield is not going to do it."