for this game

Crew-Rapids Preview

Oct 27, 2010 - 6:12 PM By KATE HEDLIN STATS Writer

Columbus (14-8-8) at Colorado (12-8-10), 9:00 p.m. EDT

The Columbus Crew saw their attempt to win back-to-back MLS Cups fall way short last year. If they are to make it back to the finals in 2010, they'll have to do it without top goalkeeper William Hesmer.

Andy Gruenebaum will make his MLS debut Thursday night when the Crew open the first leg of their playoff series against the high-scoring Colorado Rapids on the road.

Columbus won the Supporters' Shield in 2008 and '09, taking the MLS Cup in '08. The Crew, however, were eliminated last year by Real Salt Lake - the final team to qualify for the postseason - 4-2 on aggregate scoring in the semifinals.

Eager to make a deeper run, the Crew will be the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference and are matched up with Colorado, the No. 5 seed from the West. However, they'll be starting a rookie in goal after Hesmer suffered a fractured shoulder in a 3-1 win at Philadelphia in the season finale Sunday.

While Gruenebaum hasn't started an MLS game, he's not unfamiliar with pressure situations. He started all six Champions League contests and every one of the four U.S. Open Cup matches, including the championship loss to Seattle on Oct. 5.

"It definitely helps to have that experience, to have those games under my belt," he told the Crew's official website. "Hopefully I can produce."

Hesmer, however, seems certain to be missed, especially against a Colorado team that scored the second-most goals in MLS. He tied for fifth in fewest goals allowed with 33 and was tied for second with 11 shutouts this season.

He has started six playoff games over the previous two seasons, giving up seven goals and recording one shutout.

Without their veteran goalkeeper, the Crew may need to rely more heavily on an offense led by Guillermo Barros Schelotto, who had a team-high nine goals during the season. He converted a penalty shot in the victory over Philadelphia, which snapped a six-game winless streak.

Schelotto, who has played in five career playoff games, had two goals in his one postseason contest last year. He sat out the first game against Salt Lake due to injury.

"He always steps up in the big games every time we need him to," defender Andy Iro said.

Schelotto had a goal and an assist the last time he faced the Rapids in a 3-1 home victory Aug. 21. The Crew lost 1-0 in Colorado on June 5.

While Columbus is trying to avoid another playoff upset, the Rapids are back in the postseason after a three-year absence.

Colorado is led by one of the most potent offenses in MLS. The club tied for second in the league with 44 goals - one fewer than Salt Lake - and had two players in the top 10 in scoring.

Omar Cummings scored nine of his 14 goals in the last nine games, while Conor Casey had six of his 13 in the final nine contests.

Each player found the net in a 2-all draw with Salt Lake on Saturday.

"It was a little bit disheartening to draw, it felt more like a loss," said midfielder Pablo Mastroeni, the only player remaining from the club's last playoff appearance. "But to wake up and know you have four games ahead of you, potentially, is great. The spirits are high and we're ready to go and looking forward to a great game on Thursday."

The second leg of the series will be at Columbus on Nov. 6.