Gyasi Zardes and Wayne Rooney: Another Columbus-D.C. Playoff Attacking Duel

Gyasi Zardes
ATLANTA, GA AUGUST 19: Columbus' Gyasi Zardes (11) attempts to control the ball while defended by Atlanta's Jeff Larentowicz (18) during the match between Atlanta United and Columbus Crew on August 19th, 2018 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, GA. Atlanta United FC defeated Columbus Crew SC by a score of 3 - 1. (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Editorial (October 31, 2018) — For the first time in 19 years, Columbus Crew SC will face D.C. United in the MLS Cup Playoffs. Since then, these two MLS charter clubs have carved out their own unique pathways within the framework of the league’s now 23-year history.

That 1999 postseason encounter saw D.C. knock off Crew SC en route to its third MLS Cup in four years. The playoffs were much different during that time, with both rounds before the final consisting of a best-of-three series.

Between then and now, both clubs won it all just once more with 2018 being the 10-year anniversary of the Black and Gold’s lone MLS Cup. And much like 2008 with Sigi Schmid, Columbus currently has one of the league’s top American coaches in Gregg Berhalter at the helm.

This time around, it’s a one-off, winner-take-all encounter between these two sides in the knockout round. It takes place at brand spanking new Audi Field on Thursday, November 1st (8 p.m. ET, FS1). And the matchup will feature two strikers in Gyasi Zardes and Wayne Rooney whose respective presences are crucial to their respective clubs’ on-field identity.

Gyasi Zardes and Wayne Rooney Face Off for the First Time in the 2018 Knockout Round

The Legendary Goal-Scorers Who’ve Shined in This Rivalry

It’s only fitting that this tie boasts such a matchup. During Columbus and D.C.’s last postseason meeting, players such as Jeff Cunningham and Stern John for Crew SC along with Roy Lassiter, Jaime Moreno and Marco Etcheverry for D.C. graced the field. Those are all household names when it comes to all-time great MLS goal-scorers.

Want proof? Cunningham (134) and Moreno (133) are currently third and fourth respectively on MLS all-time career goals list. Moreno added 102 assists which are sixth all-time, one behind Etcheverry. And before Josef Martinez’s 31-goal haul in 2018, Lassiter (27) and John (26) boasted the second and third-best single-season goal totals in MLS history.

Though it came over three games, all five of those players put their names on the scoresheet last time Columbus and D.C. met in the playoffs. It included a hat trick from John in what was the first-ever playoff game at the facility currently known as MAPFRE Stadium. 19 years later, Zardes became the seventh Crew SC player to find the net three times in a game. His third helped precipitate this matchup as it assured Columbus of victory over Minnesota United, thus propelling them up to the five-seed in the East.

Wayne Rooney and the D.C. Revival

Standing in their way is a D.C. squad that’s arguably the hottest in MLS. The Black and Red’s last loss came all the way back on August 29, a 2-0 defeat to the Philadelphia Union. As a result, they’ve skyrocketed up the standings, going from well below the red line to hosting a knockout round game in the span of two months.

Rooney is a big reason for the turnaround. After joining D.C. in the summer, the 33-year-old English legend proceeded to take MLS by storm. Rooney started 18 of the 20 games he appeared in during the regular season, tallying 12 goals and adding seven assists. That kind of attacking production in such a short period of time is a contributing factor in him finishing the season averaging 86.37 minutes per goal/assist. That turned out to be fourth among MLS players who logged at least 1,500 minutes.

Standout players in any sport don’t just do it themselves. They also make their teammates better. Whether it’s leading by example with their work ethic in training or setting guys up for success during the game, Rooney does it all. Luciano Acosta’s play in 2018 is a crystalline example. In games where he and Rooney played together, he totaled nine goals and 10 assists. To put that in perspective, he managed just eight and 16 during his previous two seasons in D.C.

How the Road Underdogs Can Triumph Once More

Rooney, Lucho, and the rest of the D.C. attack will prove an immense challenge to the Crew SC back line. Fortunately, this is arguably the most solid it’s been under Berhalter. Only in his first year in charge did the club allow fewer goals during the regular season. It’s a testament to the depth they have a center back group that includes Ghanaian World Cup veteran, Jonathan Mensah. Maintaining good chemistry and understanding with respect to defensive responsibilities in containing Rooney and company will be critical.

One thing’s for sure. They must be better than they were down the stretch. Crew SC dropped two of their final three, conceding seven goals in those games. It’s a big reason why they couldn’t seal up a spot in the playoffs until Decision Day. And had they been more defensively solid in that span, their final goals against total would’ve certainly been better than in 2014. This unit is capable of so much better. They proved it for most of the 2018 campaign. And against D.C., they must rise to the occasion.

What also needs to happen for Crew SC to emerge victoriously is for the attack to turn in a broad-based effort. Zardes’ single-season career-high 19-goal haul this year is hugely impressive and a testament to Berhalter’s reputation as a “striker whisperer.” But he didn’t get much help this season and one can make the argument it’s a contributing factor to them not hosting a knockout round game. At the very least, the wingers, full-backs, and Federico Higuain must continue to provide quality service to their point striker.

They’ve Been Here Before

There’s no doubt Crew SC are familiar with the situation they’re in. Last year, they were also a five-seed and weren’t given much of a chance on the road against an Atlanta United side teeming with dynamic attacking talent. But the defense held their ground for 120 minutes. Then Zack Steffen stood on his head in the ensuing penalty shootout to give the Black and Gold an upset win. That experience should come in handy in another game that gives them a golden opportunity to silence the doubters.

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