Columbus Crew SC-Toronto FC Part III: What to Watch For

Sunday marks the third and final Columbus Crew SCToronto FC regular season matchup of 2016. The previous two ended in draws, meaning there’s much to play for between the Trillium Cup rivals.

But it’s not just a rivalry trophy that’s on the line. With both teams having played 20 games, it’s about that time in the season where positioning for the home stretch of the season becomes important. And one cursory look at the standings makes it clear which of these sides are doing a better job in that regard.

TFC is currently fifth in the Eastern Conference standings with a 7-7-6 record and 27 points. On first glance, that may not appear too impressive especially considering they’re only a point behind the sixth place New England Revolution. But with nine of their final 14 games at home, there will be plenty of opportunities to improve their spot in the East heading into the playoffs.

For Crew SC, the situation has become worrisome during the month of July. The Black and Gold‘s three previous matches were all at home and they drew all of them. Couple that with road losses in the previous two games before their home stand and the club has gone winless all month with just three points to show for their efforts.

As a result, they’re second from bottom in both the conference and Supporters’ Shield standings with 19 points. And unlike a few weeks earlier, you can no longer say Columbus is just a win or two from getting back into playoff contention. The gap between Crew SC and the other side of the red line is now seven points.

That’s a less than advantageous spot to be in going on the road against an opponent coming off a dominant 4-1 home win over DC United. It also doesn’t help that Columbus still has yet to win a single game away from MAPFRE Stadium in 2016. That marks the longest winless streak on the road to start a season since 2005.

With their backs against the wall and the season in “on the brink” territory, what are some things to keep an eye on Sunday? Can Crew SC get back into the win column and, in so doing, salvage their season? Here are a few things in particular to watch out for.

Columbus Crew SC-Toronto FC Part III: What to Watch For

Defusing the “Atomic Ant”

When Italy coach Antonio Conte left Sebastian Giovinco off the Azzurri‘s roster for Euro 2016, it seemed to precipitate a slump of sorts in his play. In the six games he started after being snubbed on May 23rd, Giovinco was held scoreless in all of them. Now part of that dip in goal-scoring form could be due to lingering effects from an adductor injury suffered against the New York Red Bulls on May 28th. But either way, TFC went 2-3-1 during that span.

Then last week happened. Against DC, the Giovinco that TFC fans have come to know and love showed up big time. The “Atomic Ant” put on a thermonuclear performance in and around the net, scoring a hat trick in a 4-1 demolition in front of 26,349 at BMO Field. It marked his first triple haul since August 5th of last year against Orlando City SC and his third since joining TFC.

His profound proficiency on set pieces was on full display, as you can see below.

If Crew SC doesn’t want to let Giovinco run roughshod over them in this manner, defensive discipline in zone 14 (basically the 18-yard box in front of the 18-yard box) will be paramount. For a possession team like Columbus with a vulnerability to counterattacks, that notion takes on added importance.

It’s not necessarily the counter itself that can prove costly. In some instances, fouls committed on counters that result in set pieces are just as dangerous. Factor in a player of Giovinco’s quality on the field and the opposition is in for a harrowing experience when he’s in front of the ball.

Fortunately for the Black and Gold, their propensity for fouling is on the minimal side. The club’s 191 total fouls committed is the lowest total in MLS. And despite Giovinco’s outburst last weekend, TFC as a whole just has four goals from set pieces on the season as a whole. So perhaps Crew SC may get lucky in that the anomaly in the data took place a week before they played the Reds.

Will Full Course “Pipa” Be Back on the Menu?

Over the course of Federico Higuain‘s time in Columbus, a certain element of his play has garnered a nickname of its own. On more than one occasion has Pipa caught an opposing goalkeeper off his line and lobbed it over him for a goal. Fans have a name for it: “Pipa chips.” An example was served up in last year’s final meeting with TFC.

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It’s certainly a nice snack every once in a while. But let’s face it. Higuain is much more than something you serve up when friends come over an hour before dinner. Crew SC’s dynamic Argentinian playmaker is a full course meal unto himself when it comes to his overall skill set as a footballer.

And that smorgasbord of quality in the center of the park has sorely been lacking in the seven games he’s missed after undergoing sports hernia surgery early in the month of June. In his place, it’s been primarily Mohammed Saeid in the ten role. But other players such as Hector Jimenez, Dilly Duka and Cristian Martinez have also contributed.

All in all, those four have appeared in a combined 535 minutes during Higuain’s absence. That span of time has witnessed a significant drop-off in both chance creation as well as overall shot volume from his position. The following visual paints a stark contrast in fortune between Higuain and whomever has assumed his role as he recuperated.

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Certainly Pipa’s return as a second half sub in last weekend’s game against Orlando City SC was a welcome sight. In just 19 minutes of action, he registered three shots. That accounted for 13.63 percent of the team’s total output and was tied for second on the team.

One can only hope that he’s match fit enough to play the entire 90 minutes in Toronto on Sunday.

The Time for a Sea Change in “Mentality” Begins Now

One year removed from hosting MLS Cup, it’s hard to believe that Crew SC is in this predicament with 14 games remaining in the season. A handful of factors have played a part in the club’s unsatisfactory position in the standings. Injuries to Higuain as well as center back Gaston Sauro haven’t helped.

But that isn’t an excuse for the manner in which Columbus have dropped points recently. Their previous two matches saw them squander late leads and settle for draws. The most frustrating example was last week against Orlando City when a 2-0 second half advantage was erased in the span of five minutes.

It led Crew SC manager Gregg Berhalter to openly question the team’s mindset and desire after the game.

“To me, I think it’s about the mentality,” Berhalter told reporters after the game. “Winning is not an accident. Winning is about the mentality to compete every single play, and I didn’t see that today.”

That has to change if the Black and Gold want to have any hope of getting back into the postseason picture. With their backs clearly against the wall, it’s time for this side to show a sense of urgency that, frankly, hasn’t been there all season. It begins Sunday on the road, where they haven’t been able to harvest three points out of a match all year.

Now might be the time to do so. If not, the growing doom and gloom narrative surrounding this club’s 2016 prospects will show no signs of abating.

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