Columbus Crew SC clinches playoff spot with win over D.C. United

D.C. United midfielder Russell Canouse steals the ball from Columbus Crew midfielder Pedro Santos during a match in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017.

Cameron Hoover

Columbus Crew SC exorcised the demons of a failed 2016 season Saturday night, as their 2-0 win over Eastern Conference bottom-dweller D.C. United secured their spot in the 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs.

Crew SC are back in the postseason for the first time since their MLS Cup runner-up finish in 2015. Depending on how their final two games go on the road against Orlando City SC and New York City FC, respectively, Crew SC are still in limbo in terms of whether they’ll be hosting a playoff game or not.

“I think a big part of that is the fact that, yes, we did clinch a playoff spot,” said Crew SC midfielder and captain Wil Trapp. “But we don’t want to be No. 5 or No. 6 (in the conference rankings in the playoffs). These next two games really are massive and important for us. The difference between hosting a home playoff game instead of going to Atlanta or Chicago — that’s a big difference.”

Columbus got off to a hot start in their last home game of the season, as defender Josh Williams leaped near the penalty spot to connect with a Federico Higuaín corner kick. After going four years without scoring, this was Williams’ second goal in as many games.

“I just run to the spot and (Higuaín) and Pedro (Santos) put it there,” Williams said. “It just takes a second of courage to stick your head in there and … try to get good contact on it.”

The assist was 46 of Higuaín’s career, which is the second highest all-time total for a Columbus player, trailing only Robert Warzycha.

Midfielder Justin Meram gave Crew SC some room to breathe in the second half with a curling shot from just inside the box, careening off the underside of the crossbar before nestling in the goal. This was Meram’s 13th goal of the season, second most on the team behind Ola Kamara’s 16.

“We set goals, and we reached one tonight,” Meram said. “Now, we turn it up a notch and get better. There are still moments where we have to clean up some things. We’ve got to be sharper in front of goal, sharper at the back line. Games aren’t going to get easier.”

Crew SC coach Gregg Berhalter praised his squad after the game, despite acknowledging a few shortcomings.

“Throughout the match, I think it was on and off,” Berhalter said. “I think we could’ve been better at times, but the way I classify this is as a real professional performance. We didn’t give up much. … With everything on the line, I’m happy with it.”

This result compiled more misery onto a D.C. United team that has seen more than its fair share this season. The loss leaves the team stuck on 32 points for the season, last in the Eastern Conference. This was their 16th time being shut out on the year.

The result also continues the flow of poor play for D.C. United in Columbus. The last time the team visited Ohio and beat Crew SC was Aug. 18, 2007.

Crew SC goalkeeper Zack Steffen picked up his eighth shutout of the season, his first in Columbus since joining from German club SC Freiburg in July 2016.

“He’s a stud back there,” Williams said. “He’s wise beyond his years at times. He’s confident around the back. We know we can give him the ball in any situation, and he’ll make the right play. … What he’s done is unbelievable for a first-year guy. We set the expectations high for him, but he does as well. He’s his toughest critic. He’s been a rock back there, but we still have a long way to go.”

Crew SC won 12 home games this season, a new record for the club.

Despite clinching a playoff spot, the locker room appeared as it would after any other win. No one jumped around or sang, no champagne was popped and no one lost sight of the team’s end goal. Despite the lackluster campaign in 2016, this year’s squad had unfinished business.

“We checked off some of the objectives we talked about at the beginning of the year,” Williams said. “Now it’s time to make new objectives. It’s not a surprise for us. We expected to be here at the end of the year. We still have two more games to lock up a home spot (for the playoffs).”

Cameron Hoover is a sports reporter. Contact him at [email protected].