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Columbus the team to beat in the East

Take a quick glance at the Eastern Conference standings in MLS and you might do a double take.

It is only natural because, for most of us, seeing the Columbus Crew in first place just isn't something we are used to. A team that hasn't been to the playoffs in three years isn't one you would expect to be ruling the toughest conference in the league in September, but Columbus is doing just that.

You are probably surprised because the Crew have spent the past three seasons in or near the East basement. It would be difficult to imagine that the young squad that struggled so much down the stretch of the 2007 season, and fell just three points short of the playoffs, would be boasting the league's best record and one of its deepest and most entertaining teams.

The transformation isn't a surprise to the Crew, or to those who closely followed last year's team, a young squad that played some of the best soccer in the league late last year. Unfortunately for Columbus, inexperience cost the squad down the stretch as it lost or tied a total of six games it led in the second half of the season. The most costly of those was a 3-2 loss to Kansas City in a match Columbus led 2-1 in second-half stoppage time. The Wizards ultimately beat out the Crew for the final playoff spot.

"Last year we needed to learn how to win games, how to keep control of games we led," said Crew midfielder and MVP candidate Guillermo Barros Schelotto. "Last year we gave up too many points late in games and the younger players needed to realize that every game is important."

This year's Crew is putting games away with regularity, led by the mesmerizing play of the skillful Schelotto, who has followed up an MLS Best XI season in 2007 with a 2008 season worthy of league MVP honors. This year he has contributed six goals and a league-high 18 assists, impressive stats for a player some worried might not come back this year.

Rumors that Schelotto would stay in Argentina dogged the Crew this winter, but what many didn't know was that Schelotto was in Argentina plotting his return and thinking about what message to send to his young team to help its transition into a winner.

"People don't realize that he [Schelotto] is very tuned in to everything going on here," Crew coach Sigi Schmid said. "He knew where we were in the standings, what the playoffs were. He was one of the guys who spoke up in the beginning of the year and said, 'Guys, if we won one more game we would have been in the playoffs.'"

Missing the playoffs shouldn't be a concern this season, not with the Crew sporting the best record in the league and riding a four-match unbeaten streak to pull five points clear of New England and Chicago atop the East. Schmid points to the fact that Schelotto and team goal-scoring leader Alejandro Moreno (eight goals) have been with the team from the beginning of the season, unlike last year, when both players arrived in midseason.

"There has been a lot of competition from the beginning and having everyone around from the start of the year has helped that," Schmid said. "I think we improved off the field as well. We have a really good locker room. The guys enjoy playing with each other."

The maturation of young standouts such as Robbie Rogers, Chad Marshall and Wil Hesmer, along with the integration of newcomers such as rookies Andy Iro and Emmanuel Ekpo, has resulted in a well-balanced squad that has been the most consistent team in the league all season. In fact, the Crew have not gone more than two matches without a win all season.

"We have a team that can play fast, attacking soccer, and you can see the group enjoying the game," Schelotto said. "It is a team that is growing and maturing."

The team is also blossoming in an attack spearheaded by Schelotto, who has developed a good understanding with Rogers, Moreno and second-year midfielder Brad Evans, who has impressed.

The offensive production has helped ease concerns heading into the season about Columbus being able to score goals. The club tried to address the need for an established goal-scorer in the spring when it pursued Polish international Maciej Zurawski, and when Zurawski passed up MLS for Greek club Larissa, the Crew looked to be in danger of having an offense high on flash, but low on goal production.

Those concerns have faded as Schelotto, Moreno and Rogers have keyed an attack that has scored 40 goals this year, second-most in MLS to Los Angeles.

While the Crew's attacking players get most of the headlines, one of the team's most important players has been veteran midfielder Brian Carroll. Carroll has been a steadying force in the middle of the field, doing the dirty work that allows players like Schelotto, Rogers and Ekpo to get into the attack.

"He has really stabilized a part of the team that has been an unstable part for a while," Schmid said of Carroll. "He brings experience and composure to the position and has put together a very good season."

With seven matches remaining in the regular season, the Crew will soon start hearing the question about their lack of playoff experience and whether a team with so many young players can win in a conference loaded with experienced playoff teams like New England and D.C. United. It is a valid question considering players such as Rogers, Eddie Gaven, Evans, Iro and Hesmer don't have playoff experience, though veteran players like Schelotto, Moreno, Carroll and Frankie Hejduk all have extensive big-game experience.

"We are a team that can be in the playoffs, and once we're there we have to play and experience it," Schelotto said. "Hopefully once we get there the pressure won't get to us and we'll just know that we are good enough to win."

Said Schmid, "The playoffs are always going to be different. You can't simulate it. Last year should have been the year to get that playoff experience under our belt but it didn't happen so we are trying to put ourselves in situations here late in the year where we approach games like they are playoff games.

"You take the New England game. I told the team that we have to take the game to them and treat it like a playoff game. We responded well to that."

The Crew responded with a 4-0 thrashing of New England on Sept. 6 that solidified the Crew's hold on the league's best record.

Whether that success will carry over to the playoffs, in which Columbus hasn't won a series since 2002, will come down to whether the Crew's youngsters can grow up in a hurry. Considering how far the group has already come in the past year, nothing the Crew does this year should surprise us.

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.

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