For a second consecutive season, the Columbus Crew will face arguably the hottest team in the league when they visit D.C. United in the knockout round of the MLS playoffs on Thursday night.
The Crew hope to pull off a second straight shock.
While D.C. (14-11-9, 51 points) enters Thursday on a 10-match unbeaten run, Crew SC (14-11-9, 51 points) will know anything is possible after knocking off similarly hot Atlanta United on penalties last year.
"We'll be prepared there," Crew coach Gregg Berhalter said Sunday after his team's 3-2 victory over Minnesota United to close the regular season. "When you look at the matchups, I don't think there's any one where you say, 'Oh, that's an easy matchup'. I think all of the games are difficult. We know we have a tough task ahead of us, but we also know we're a good team."
The teams split a pair of regular-season games back in the spring, when both clubs had a considerably different look.
For Columbus, winger Justin Meram has returned from an unsuccessful half-season stint with Orlando City. For United, former England and Manchester United star Wayne Rooney signed in the summer, and goalkeeper Bill Hamid returned on loan from a club in Denmark.
Even Audi Field will be something new for Columbus, as D.C. "hosted" the Crew at the Naval Academy's football stadium in Annapolis, Md., in April. Columbus is the only Eastern Conference side not to visit the new stadium since it opened on July 14.
That the game is at home may be most important and most remarkable for D.C., given it sat in last place in the Eastern Conference as late as mid-August. United is 12-2-1 at Audi Field, and they stormed to the No. 4 seed in the East ahead of the No. 5 Crew thanks in part to playing 15 of their last 20 at home after opening Audi Field.
"There's been a lot of things going our way," D.C. midfielder Russell Canouse said. "Obviously being at Audi Field with the fans and having guys come back in, and just the mentality that has been going on, and the team has been great. We know that we have to continue it into the playoffs."