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Complete preview for MLS week 23: Why Columbus are still playoff contenders

Analyzing NYCFC's success, and explaining why the Crew remain in the playoff hunt.

Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

NYCFC's front three

New York City FC are somehow still hanging onto that first place position in the Eastern Conference, if only barely. They're up by just a point over Toronto FC, who have a game in hand on NYCFC.

It's surprising, for multiple reasons.

For one, they've played just four home games since the beginning of June. It's difficult to get very far in this league without getting consistent points at home, and that's something NYC have struggled to do this season. They've managed to find a way to survive with points on the road, however, and they will have to continue to do that for the rest of the season, as they will play the majority of their games away from Yankee Stadium.

Patrick Viera is one of the front-runners for Coach of the Year because of his ability to get a veteran team like NYCFC to do as well as they have on the road. It's impressive, but it's even more impressive to see his newfound lineup consistency and success.

After they toyed with various obscure formations in the beginning of the year — including the 3-4-3 — they have been able to stick with a simple 4-3-3 and continue to generate goals.

Their front-three has been the most impressive. David Villa, who is a leading candidate for MVP, has constantly been able to get in good positions around the goal thanks to his ability to play off of wingers Jack Harrison and Tommy McNamara. The future England international Harrison breaks defenses with long, smart runs (both on the ball and off), while the future Ireland star McNamara — although the US still have a chance at him — is very good at making incisive moves at the backline and drawing defenders away from Villa. The occasional long-range golazo doesn't hurt, either.

With Andrea Pirlo standing around in midfield hitting ridiculous diagonal switches to that front three, they are able to excel. And when they excel, Frank Lampard is able to make his signature trailing run and walk into the box undisturbed, which is why he's scored eight goals since June 18.

This is a classic NYCFC goal:

Andrea Pirlo sends a world-class ball to a cutting McNamara, whose cross hits Lampard in the knee and bounces into the goal. Teams have a hard time defending this.

Columbus Crew SC, a team that has had a hard time defending a lot of things this season, will be going up against this on Saturday at MAPFRE Stadium.

Why the Crew are still alive

Speaking of the Crew, they are coming off a much-needed bye week, one that actually kept them in the playoff race, although they are only hanging by a thread. In ninth place with 19 points, Gregg Berhalter's side are seven points behind sixth-place New England with two games in hand. They play six of their remaining 13 matches at home, including this weekend's against NYCFC.

It's obviously been a pretty rough season in Columbus, but, unlike many people, I'm not completely ruling them out of the playoffs. This is a roster that still looks like the one that came a Steve Clark error away from winning MLS Cup last year, minus the obvious exclusion of Kei Kamara, and Berhalter's lineup is slowly coming back to full-health. Federico Higuain is playing, both full backs seem to be transitioning back into the starting XI, and Ethan Finlay is getting minutes along with Cedrick Mabwati on the right wing.

They're playing an attractive, possession-based style that even Viera has shown appreciation for. It will help replace the cross-heavy, Kamara-focused tactics of the past that don't work as well with Ola Kamara instead of Kei in the box. They now will have to develop an ability to play with possession in the final third with Higuain creating centrally along with inverted winger Justin Meram — similar to what New England do with Lee Nguyen — and create opportunities that way.

They have the personnel and the coaching to do that. The concern, then, becomes the error-prone and often-disorganized backline, which has suffered from significant injuries to Michael Parkhurst and Gaston Sauro, who remains out with a torn PCL. Tyson Wahl is backup-caliber at best, and Chad Barson is, to be completely honest, pretty terrible. The frequency with which they've given up goals like this is disturbing:

That's the test for Berhalter: He has to get his team on the same page more consistently, or else more avoidable goals like the one above will occur. The ball-watching tendencies and lack of marking are concerns, and go hand-in-hand with scoring problems.

But despite this, I won't definitively say they won't make a playoff push. They have enough talent to contend, and let's face it, it shouldn't be all that hard to gain ground against the Eastern Conference's fringe postseason clubs. The Revs have identity issues centered around their Kamara and Orlando just hired a new coach, so I don't think either of those teams should be considered that much of a problem for Columbus. D.C. United, on the other hand, might be a slight concern with the additions of Patrick Mullins and Lloyd Sam, but the Crew are still, on paper, the better team.

If they're going to make a run at the red line, it has to start now. Saturday's game against New York City should be three points, as should their match against the Revolution on August 20th. It's do-or-die time for Berhalter and co.

I wouldn't bet against them.