FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Six games of fantasy for Columbus ended with one rather abrupt reminder of reality.
Crew coach Robert Warzycha compared Wednesday's 2-0 defeat at New England to a cold shower. The harsh assessment didn't appear far from the truth, though perhaps a warm bath may have felt more appropriate after his side's seventh game in 21 days.
No matter the temperature, this garish and limp defeat to a Revolution side winless in 10 previous matches contradicted the form book and provided a shock to the system. The unexpected rebuke, however, did not entirely obscure the impact of the previous six outings without defeat.
“You have to be happy about this stretch that we've had,” Warzycha said after he discussed some of the many errors committed on the evening. “Some of the games, you're going to lose. Some of them, you're going to win. Hopefully, we win more and we win the next one.”
Recent events suggest the previous six games – even with the flair for the dramatic usually involved – and the recent surge into viable playoff contention offer a better indication of this side's potential than the fatigued defeat in midweek.
Columbus often cites a laudatory club mantra about being the hardest working team in America, but the theme actually fits in this case. A few flourishes in the attacking third (more on those touches in a moment) make the Crew more adventurous and potent than in recent years, but the first step to success for this side still includes a hefty dollop of collective effort from a close-knit group filled with few household names.
This determined and well-drilled mentality manifests on the field in the solid team shape (4-2-3-1 with Federico Higuaín in a free role of sorts behind Jairo Arrieta) and the unrelenting desire to fight into the waning stages of the contest. The mental strength also yields tangible dividends even when the rearguard falters a bit (no shutouts since July 21). Two of the four victories during the six-game unbeaten run included stoppage-time winners. A third triumph included a two-goal fightback.
“It's just been the team mindset,” Crew midfielder Eddie Gaven said. “Play hard, work to the last whistle, never give up. We've scored so many goals late over the [past few games]. It just shows the fight that this team has and how much these guys want to win.”
It also helps to have a few fresh and talented faces to spur the team forward. Arrieta and Higuaín increase the diversity of options available to Warzycha and supply a bit more potency in the final third. Perhaps most importantly, they combine often and work well together as the two players assigned to stay higher than everyone else. Arrieta stretches the field vertically by fearlessly working the offside line for that one chance behind the back four. Higuaín operates in the resulting spaces created to pick apart opposing defenses.
The form displayed by both players has forced opposing teams to focus intently upon them. Higuaín, in particular, warrants plenty of attention with his lively movement. His recent displays have increased his profile in league circles and permitted other players such as Gaven, Dilly Duka and Emilio Renteria to roam more freely in the wide areas with scrutiny focused elsewhere.
“They've just made us more dynamic going forward,” Gaven said. “It puts the other teams on their heels a little bit and creates more room for guys like me to be able to run through. It's been fun for me. I know it's been fun for pretty much every guy on the team and in this room.”
The joy may dissipate quickly if the Crew cannot turn this recent run of form into a somewhat unexpected playoff berth. In the jumbled Eastern Conference postseason picture, there is little leeway available as several sides jockey for position. Columbus currently sits in fifth spot and holds a one-point lead over D.C. United, but the seven-point spread between second and seventh spots means plenty of room exists for positive or negative movement in the final seven matches.
If the Crew recreate the performances produced in recent weeks and take advantage of impending visits by Chivas USA, Philadelphia and Toronto, then a playoff berth looks more likely than not given the landscape. A favorable schedule and the fine run of recent form to obtain this position isn't enough to get the job done, however.
“This is the time of year where you have to be playing your very best soccer,” Gaven said. “We have to find a way to do that and try to make a push for the playoffs.”
Securing a spot in the postseason will require more hard work and fewer nights like the one suffered through in Foxborough. The brief isn't beyond the capabilities of this Crew side. It just requires a touch of expected improvement at the back and a wholesale investment in the notion that this group (and Higuaín, in particular) can produce that extra dose of magic necessary to fuel the push towards yet another playoff berth.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.