COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – If it’s just about freezing outside and the Rapids are playing at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, that’s good news in Colorado.
The Rapids endured a 32-degree temperature at kickoff and a pesky effort from the Columbus Crew to surge into the Eastern Conference semifinals on Thursday night, riding a first-half goal from Omar Cummings to a 1-0 win in a do-or-die match between the two wild card teams.
Colorado, who topped Columbus in the postseason last year before winning the Eastern Conference Championship at home in similarly frigid fashion, will host top-seeded Sporting Kansas City in the first leg of the semifinals on Sunday night (7 pm ET).
The Rapids and Sporting Kansas City tied both games played against one another this season.
Columbus, meanwhile, saw their season end at the hands of the same team that dumped them last year. But while last year’s conference semifinal series came down to penalty kicks, this one was decided on a gorgeous buildup from the Rapids in first-half stoppage time.
Cummings got the goal after midfielder Brian Mullan fed defender Kosuke Kimura to the end line, and Kimura coasted a pass back to the Jamaican striker in the box. Cummings pounced with a right-footed shot that left Crew goalkeeper William Hesmer helpless, and gave the Rapids all the offense they needed.
The goal was the first in any postseason game for Cummings, whose scoring numbers plummeted this season while he battled an ankle injury and played without injured striker Conor Casey.
The Rapids defense, meanwhile, picked up their third shutout in the last five postseason games dating back to last season’s MLS Cup run. They locked down leading scorer Andrés Mendoza where they could and effectively neutralized winger Eddie Gaven, and left Robbie Rogers with one harmless scoring chance in the first half.
Crew head coach Robert Warzycha ran Mendoza up top alone and stunningly inserted Tony Tchani into the starting lineup in the midfield for his first action since July 9, but neither trick paid dividends. Emilio Rentería came on for Dilly Duka in the 65th minute, but never created the offense the Crew needed, and imposing youngster Tommy Heinemann never had the chance to make an impact after coming on in the dying minutes of the match.
The Crew’s best scoring chance came in the 55th minute, when Mendoza scorched a left-footed shot from the top of the box that slammed off the crossbar, but skipped out of harm’s way.
The Rapids, meanwhile, got a spark from the pesky wing play of Mullan and Sanna Nyassi, who both pushed the tempo much of the night. Mullan, who is playing in his 11th consecutive postseason, had a good look at an insurance goal in the 65th minute, but skied a wide open chance over the bar. Late substitute Macoumba Kandji also skipped a shot just wide of the post in the 90th minute.
They also got a boost from Jamie Smith, who paired with Jeff Larentowicz in the midfield in the absence of injured captain Pablo Mastroeni. Smith, however, was stretchered off the field with an apparent injury to his right leg in the 73rd minute, replaced by Ross LaBauex.
Neither team seriously asserted themselves in the early going, but the best chance belonged to Nyassi in the 24th minute. He juked his way from the left sideline into space atop the penalty box, but his right-footed shot drifted harmlessly into Hesmer’s hands.
The Rapids also nearly scored in the 41st, when a shot by Cummings skipped off the outstretched leg of defender Chad Marshall and dangerously wide of the near post.
The Crew struggled early to get in gear offensively, but Rogers found himself in space after a perfect through ball from Mendoza in the 17th minute. The ensuing shot, however, skipped harmlessly wide of the left post.
Duka also ripped a shot from distance that knuckled off Pickens’ gloves in the early going, but the Rapids’ backline cleared the ball out of trouble.
COL -- Omar Cummings 1 (Kosuke Kimura 1, Brian Mullan 1) 46+
CLB -- Sebastian Miranda (caution; Reckless Foul) 15
Columbus Crew -- William Hesmer, Sebastian Miranda (Jeff Cunningham 70) (Tommy Heinemann 85), Chad Marshall, Julius James, Josh Gardner, Eddie Gaven, Rich Balchan, Robbie Rogers, Tony Tchani, Dilly Duka (Emilio Renteria 65), Andres Mendoza.
Substitutes Not Used: Kevin Burns, Shaun Francis, Eric Gehrig, Andy Gruenebaum.
Colorado Rapids -- Matt Pickens, Kosuke Kimura, Marvell Wynne, Drew Moor, Miguel Comminges, Brian Mullan, Jeff Larentowicz, Jamie Smith (Ross LaBauex 74), Sanna Nyassi (Macoumba Kandji 89), Omar Cummings (Wells Thompson 68), Caleb Folan.
Substitutes Not Used: Joseph Nane, Tyrone Marshall, Scott Palguta, Steward Ceus.
Referee: Jorge Gonzalez
Referee's Assistants: Greg Barkey; Kermit Quisenberry
4th Official: Andrew Chapin
Time of Game: 1:51
Weather: Clear and 32 degrees