Bringing on Kandji, Lopez pays dividends for Rapids

Colorado's tactical changes steal momentum from Crew

COLUMBUS, Ohio — In the do-or-die desperation that comes with the MLS Cup Playoffs, a simple substitution can be enough to tip the tactical balance in favor of one team over the other. The Colorado Rapids’ ouster of the Columbus Crew on Saturday night proved a case in point.

Down 2-1 in the aggregate goal series with 15 minutes remaining, Rapids manager Gary Smith threw caution to the wind in shifting to a 3-5-2 formation for the first time this year. He replaced two fullbacks with attackers Macoumba Kandji and Claudio Lopez, and brought on defender Julien Baudet to anchor the three-man backline.

Kandji helped set up the Rapids' lone goal on Saturday night, and all three subs scored in the penalty kick shootout.

“We were trying to get the most aggressive players on the pitch and the most creative players,” Smith said after the match. “It paid some dividends.”

The payoff came in the form of Conor Casey’s 84th-minute goal, which tied the aggregate score, sending the series into overtime.

HIGHLIGHTS: Columbus 2, Colorado 1 (2-3 on agg.)

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Meanwhile, after owning the first 20 minutes of the match, the Columbus Crew ceded possession to Colorado and began to chase the game toward the end. The Crew managed to score a second goal on a 70th-minute counterattack against the run of play, but they lacked the punch of earlier in the game.

“Even if I didn’t score, you can tell the difference with [me and Emmanuel Ekpo] on the field and when we came off the field,” winger Robbie Rogers said. “We didn’t get behind them. We weren’t as dangerous.

“I know it sounds real arrogant. But it’s a big difference when Emanu and I are on the field.”

The momentum shift late in the second half belied the fast start by Columbus, and the Crew eventually paid the price for backing off.

“We kind of took our foot off the gas a little bit and they kept throwing guys forward and unfortunately they were able to get a goal,” midfielder Eddie Gaven said. “The game was pretty even for the overtime period also. It’s just a shame that it has to end on PKs.”