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At the end of a season full of distractions, the Columbus Crew just need a win

Crew SC’s ownership situation is a pain, their coach is probably getting poached, and they’re the most statistically unlucky team in MLS. None of that matters on Sunday.

MLS: Portland Timbers at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Columbus Crew SC have spent all season atop the headlines in MLS for reasons other than what they’ve done on the pitch. They’re bottom of the attendance charts because their owner, Anthony Precourt, has tried to relocate the team. The state of Ohio sued to prevent that from happening. Eventually, a local ownership group stepped up and cut a deal to keep the team in Columbus. That was only the biggest headline related to the team for a single day — their manager Gregg Berhalter is now reportedly the strong favorite to be named USMNT head coach.

The Crew’s on-field exploits have also been easy to ignore because they’ve been very solid, but unspectacular all season. They’ve been firmly in a playoff spot, but out of the Supporters’ Shield race, for the entirety of the campaign. That is, until the last couple of weeks, when two losses coupled with good results for the teams behind them have put the Crew into a do-or-die situation on Sunday, in the final match of the regular season.

For Columbus, the calculations are simple: Win and they’re in the playoffs. Fail to win and they’re left to pray that the Montreal Impact don’t catch them. Columbus enters the final day on 48 points and a minus-3 goal differential, while Montreal is on 46 points and minus-5.

“It’s a great stepping stone for us as a team, to understand and see what we’re made of when our backs are against the wall,” Crew SC captain Wil Trapp says about Sunday’s match against Minnesota United. “How do we perform? It’s a great opportunity.”

The last few games have been the unluckiest of a highly unlucky season for the Crew. Their 40 goals scored is second-worst in the league, but they’re fifth-best in shots. Crew SC is also best in the league at preventing opponent shots, but four teams have a better defensive record.

In the case of the Crew’s bad scoring luck, three players stick out — Pedro Santos, Harrison Afful and Artur. They’re all high-volume shooters — Afful, despite playing right back, is third in shots on the team — but they’re not scoring goals. Collectively, that trio has taken 169 shots on the season, and it’s only led to three goals. Starting striker Gyasi Zardes is 10 times more efficient — he has 16 goals in 89 shots.

“It’s shot selection,” Berhalter says when asked why that group’s shots haven’t led to goals. “You’re talking about three players who generally shoot from outside the penalty box. We know that shots from outside the penalty box don’t have a great conversion rate.”

That’s certainly true of Artur, but both Afful and Santos do take over one-third of their shots from inside the 18-yard area. Berhalter seems to think they’ll come good eventually if the Crew keep doing the same things. “At times when they have gotten into the penalty box, they’re in good positions, and we just have to keep working to make sure they can keep getting into those positions, and eventually score,” Berhalter says.

When asked if his team’s struggles are more about bad luck or bad execution, Berhalter says “it’s both, let’s be real about it.”

“We’re happy that we created some good chances, but we need our finishing to be a little bit better,” Berhalter says about last week’s 2-1 loss away to Orlando City. “I tell the guys to keep going, keep trying. And that’s the important thing, that we have the mindset that we want to keep creating chances, and if we do that over time we’ll be OK.”

But time has run out for the Crew, who need their bad luck to turn around immediately, or their season will be over. There aren’t any more games for the stats to normalize. If they lose, it’s unlikely that anyone will care that the stats said Columbus were one of the best teams in MLS.

At the same time, the Crew are facing down a long offseason. They’re likely to undergo a change in ownership, head coach, and given the level of control that Berhalter has in Columbus, perhaps their entire club structure.

They’d like to delay the inevitable for a few more games, at least.