Sunday September 20th, 2015

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Kei Kamara was heard well before he was seen, his voice booming through the narrow tunnel that connects the field to the visitors’ locker room inside RFK Stadium.

Finally he emerged, leaping up the final flight of stars, his bright yellow jersey soaked in sweat. He screamed, “Whoo! Playoffs baby,” then quickly apologized for his waterlogged condition as he hugged Columbus Crew communications director Tim Miller, who was wearing a nice gray suit.

Kamara’s MLS-leading 21st goal of the season, along with his assist on Ethan Finlay’s opener, propelled Columbus to Saturday's 2–1 defeat of D.C. United. During that typically dreary walk underneath RFK, the celebrating striker was under the impression that the win—his club’s fifth in seven games—was enough to secure postseason play. He found out once he reached the locker room that it wasn’t. The Crew needed some help in Orlando. Later Saturday, they would learn they didn’t get it—Orlando City blanked the Chicago Fire—meaning Columbus’ clinching moment would have to wait.

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But Kamara’s mood didn’t sour, and for good reason. He was all smiles inside and even danced a bit as he jostled with Miller over the volume of the locker room music. For at least one night, the Columbus Crew (13-9-8) were in first place in the MLS’s Eastern Conference. A team that couldn’t buy three points outside of Ohio before mid-July traveled to the home of a potential playoff rival—a stadium in which the Crew were beaten in early May—and won for the fifth time in its past six road games. The playoff berth will come. Meanwhile, there were plenty of reasons to feel good.

As summer fades away and the fight for postseason position really begins, clubs like Columbus look for indications that they’re ready for the postseason crucible. Kamara said Saturday’s win, which didn’t come easy as United rallied late, could be considered such a sign.

“We looked at our schedule seriously, a few months ago—maybe three—and knew the last couple of games against D.C. were going to be the hardest games we had to play for playoff position,” Kamara said. (The Crew host United in the Oct. 25 regular season finale.)

“I got in and everybody told me we had to wait [to qualify for the playoffs]. But coming in and seeing the scenarios, we knew we must win this game [to clinch Saturday]. So we said, ‘Let’s go win there. Let’s not hold back. Let’s go play them.'"

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Columbus went at D.C. from the opening whistle. Neither United nor the environment created by 19,033 fans would slow down the Crew. Tony Tchani crushed a volley off the crossbar in just the third minute. The defensive midfielder nearly scored from long range on two subsequent bids, forcing a couple of nice saves from D.C. goalkeeper Billl Hamid. Then Kamara came close in the 12th on a run from the right side of the penalty area. United had its chances too—it might have been a different game had Álvaro Saborío finished off his 14th-minute breakaway—but Columbus held its nerve and stayed true to its preferred style, despite the potential consequences. It was comfortable opening up a bit, moving the ball and pressing the hosts. Goalie Steve Clark pitched in with four saves.

“Tony definitely read the game in the beginning and he saw D.C. backing up. The best thing to do when they back up is shoot,” Kamara said of the frantic opening. “When he did that, they started stepping up and when they stepped up, there was space for us to go behind.”

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The Crew broke through in the 27th minute as they exploited that space behind D.C.’s back four. Michael Parkhurst hit a lofted pass that Kamara flicked to Tyson Wahl on the left edge of the penalty area. Wahl’s quick cross found Finlay, who turned on two D.C. defenders before pounding a five-yard shot past Hamid. Kamara tallied the insurance goal four minutes after halftime, running onto a beautiful through ball from Tchani and beating Hamid at the near post.

As it so often does, United (13-11-6) fought back. Chris Rolfe halved the deficit with a 68th-minute penalty kick and Saborío thought he equalized in the 85th before he was whistled offside. But Columbus held on, leaving D.C. winless in its past five.

For coach Gregg Berhalter, the Crew’s ability to see the game out, to find a way to win against a veteran team in a tough environment—that was a positive playoff sign, whether or not a spot was clinched. He expected his team to start on the front foot. He’s been asking for that all season. It was Saturday’s second half that helped season his team for the stretch run.

“I think this was a great exercise late in the game to have to dig in and have to defend and have to deal with a lot of balls in the penalty box, and I think that’s what I’m proud of the guys for doing,” he said. “It was an opportunity for us to prove to ourselves that we can do that. We can defend when we’re under extreme pressure … We knew [this game] was going to have a playoff atmosphere to it. I think the guys came out of it in good shape. We proved to ourselves we can stay calm and execute our games.”

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Columbus will fall out of first on Sunday if the New York Red Bulls win at Portland, and the Crew still may not be considered a legitimate championship threat. New York and New England, the reigning conference champ, have been the in-form teams over the past couple months. United led the East for most of the season and start-studded Toronto FC remains within striking distance. But Columbus, 5-1-1 in its past seven, now must be part of the contenders' conversation. Kamara is an MVP candidate, Finlay and Justin Meram are two of the league’s most dynamic withdrawn attackers and playmaker Federico Higuaín can pull the strings as well as anyone in MLS. Tchani and Will Trapp round out a front six with range, consistency and a sound understanding of Berhalter’s style. This is a good team, and they showed their playoff mettle on Saturday, on the road against a desperate foe.

“Nobody’s talking about us, which is great,” Kamara said. “We’re in Columbus. We don’t get much press. New York and Toronto, those teams get all the press. But when we step on the field, people are seeing how we play. We’re making our mark by the way we play.”

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