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Crew hosts Whitecaps in battle of first-place clubs

It's too early in the season to call it an MLS Cup preview, but after four matches the co-leaders in each conference will meet at Mapfre Stadium on Saturday when Columbus Crew SC hosts the Vancouver Whitecaps.

The Crew has put aside off-field distractions about a possible relocation next season to Austin, Texas, and has gone unbeaten (3-0-1) while outscoring the opposition 8-3.

Columbus is tied with New York City FC atop the Eastern Conference. Vancouver (2-1-1) shares the West lead with Sporting Kansas City after drawing 0-0 against the undermanned Los Angeles Galaxy last week.

"We'd be happier if we had a few more wins to be honest," Whitecaps defender Jake Nerwinski said.

Crew coach Gregg Berhalter is unfazed by the quick start that could put Columbus in better position to compete for home-field advantage in the playoffs as opposed to 2017 when it spent the better part of the season chasing the top half of the standings.

"It doesn't change the fact we're focused on the next game," he said. "All we want to do is set the team up in the best possible way to win the game."

Columbus is coming off a 3-1 victory against D.C. United that was achieved without goalkeeper Zack Steffen and midfielder Wil Trapp. They played 90 minutes Tuesday for the U.S. National Team in a 1-0 win over Paraguay in Cary, N.C.

Steffen will be back in goal and Trapp, who captained the American squad as he does for the Crew, will likely be in the lineup as well, but will be monitored for fatigue.

"We'll be looking at it and seeing where he is," Berhalter said.

Columbus will try to get leading scorer Gyasi Zardes (three goals) back in the scoring column after being held without a goal the past two matches.

"Last game, when you look at total chances specifically, on a couple of corner kicks, he was getting on the end of them and he had a couple of shots where he was in position to get it on frame," Berhalter said. "We're happy with that."

Vancouver brought in 11 new players and is still trying to find an identity.

"There's a lot of positive we can take from each game but there's a lot of things we can work on," coach Carl Robinson said. "I firmly believe it takes 10 to 12 games to find a rhythm."

The Whitecaps could be bolstered by the return of center back Kendall Waston, who missed the LA game while with Jamaica's national team. He will be allowed to play after having a red card versus Atlanta on March 17 rescinded.

Former Crew forward Kei Kamara could make his second trip to Columbus since being traded to New England in May 2016 after an on-field spat with Crew midfielder Federico Higuain.

"There's nothing to prove with (the Crew) anymore," Kamara said. "It's been a couple of seasons. Getting a win over there would be great."

Updated March 29, 2018

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