Crew SC comes into the nationally televised game with playoff hopes that could aptly be described as faint at best. They host a Revolution squad who’s currently just above the red line as the Eastern Conference‘s sixth best team. Looking at that in isolation would likely induce the following reaction in most MLS fans’ minds: meh.
But there’s an added dose of intrigue centered around one man: Kei Kamara. For it is he who returns to Columbus as a member of another team for the first time since his rather ignominious departure from Crew SC on May 12th. It’s rather nonsensical to rehash what transpired to necessitate the move. That dead horse has already been beaten ad nauseum.
Instead, it makes more sense to break down what to expect when these two sides take the field at MAPFRE Stadium for Sunday’s finale to MLS Week 29. Here are a few things to keep an eye on.
Columbus Crew SC-New England Revolution: What to Watch for
How to Prevent Kei From Getting the Last Laugh
Thought it’s a bit redundant to describe in detail what led to the present status quo, the fact remains that Kamara’s return to central Ohio is news. There will most certainly be an awkward feel to it, especially among the fans. How do you react to a player who spearheaded a campaign that nearly resulted in a title only to see him leave in a rather tumultuous manner?
Irrespective of the fan reaction, however, there’s no doubting Kamara’s ability as a pure target forward. His movement, aerial ability and knack for finding space around the goal make him a scoring threat whenever he’s on the pitch. That quality was on full display not even a minute into the Revs last game against the Montreal Impact.
As is visibly evident in the above clip, Kamara is about as good as it gets in MLS in connecting on crosses with his head. The stats confirm the visuals as well. Kamara is averaging 3.6 aerial duels won per 90 which leads the league among forwards who’ve played a minimum of 1500 minutes.
Of course, another angle to pay attention to in the lead-up to this match (especially in today’s day and age) is the social media banter among former teammates. Of particular interest is this little exchange between Kamara and Crew SC midfielder Mohammed Saeid. In a way, it may shed light on the locker room dynamics that were present when Kamara was still a part of the club.
The biggest communication problem is we don't listen to understand. We listen to reply .
— Mohammed Saeid (@Msaeid8) September 20, 2016
Who are you ??? https://t.co/GbnOaNMXC5
— KEI KAMARA (@keikamara) September 20, 2016
Ama show you Sunday … https://t.co/yMLo9tsqQr
— Mohammed Saeid (@Msaeid8) September 20, 2016
Trolling aside, there is quite a bit on the line for both teams Sunday. However minuscule the possibility may be at this point, Crew SC remains in the race to make the postseason. And if the Black and Gold can get the full three against the Revs while shutting down Kamara, the sentiment among players and fans might be summed up in the following GIF.
Nicolai Naess: A Reliable Stop-Gap at D-Mid
Part of Crew SC’s struggles this year can be attributed to myriad injury issues. Quite a few key players including Gaston Sauro, Federico Higuain and Wil Trapp have had to miss significant time. In Trapp’s case, he hasn’t returned since suffering a concussion early in Columbus’ 2-0 win over San Jose August 27.
This has forced Crew SC manager Gregg Berhalter to slot players into somewhat unfamiliar roles given their primary skill set. With Trapp out of the lineup and rookie Rodrigo Saravia lacking experience, Berhalter has decided to play Nicolai Naess at holding midfielder. Getting Sauro back, reconstituting the center back partnership between him and Michael Parkhurst while keeping Naess in the starting lineup might also be a rationale as well.
All things being considered, Naess has acquitted himself well. His incisive passing, particularly over long distances, has always been an important element of his game even as a center back. This is evidenced by the fact his six accurate long balls per 90 minutes ranks ninth in MLS among non-goalkeepers.
In Crew SC’s last outing, a dominant 4-1 win over Orlando City SC, Naess demonstrated what he’s capable of in that regard. Behold this laser of a through ball he delivered to Ethan Finlay in the build-up to the club’s third goal of the game.
People often think over-the-top direct play when the term “long ball” comes up. However, those types of passes can stay “grounded” so to speak when breaking a high defensive line in transition. Naess’ secondary assist on a goal signifying the rout was on counts as the latter.
But that’s not to say that Berhalter has had a “eureka” moment in playing Naess as a number six. That role requires quite a bit of industry in distributing and winning the ball. Certain metrics suggest the Norwegian doesn’t have the same impact on the field as Trapp has had over the course of the season.
The following visual provides an indication. It measures certain players’ pass usage rate over the previous three games, each of which saw Naess used as a d-mid.
To put these numbers in perspective, Trapp’s usage rate for the season is 14.58 percent. He’s also averaging 88.2 percent pass accuracy compared to Naess’ 82.3 since he’s assumed Trapp’s role in central midfield.
If Trapp remains a no-go (all indications are that he’s cleared concussion protocol), Naess should continue to be a reliable replacement. But it’s clear he’s more comfortable in his familiar role in central defense.
Kelyn Rowe and the Diamond Revolution
New England comes into Sunday’s game in blazing hot form, having won three straight. It’s a far cry from a month ago when they were in the midst of an 0-5-1 slump from July 31st to August 28th. The sudden reversal of fortune has been made possible in large part due to head coach Jay Heaps’ formation change.
Heaps has decided to scrap his 4-2-3-1 in favor of a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield. How does this differ from a traditional flat 4-4-2? In particular, it has to do with the positioning of the wide midfielders who tuck in more centrally. In theory, this creates a 4v3 in the middle of the park (particularly against a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1).
In essence, your wingers have morphed into carilleros (shuttlers) who have an added responsibility associated with cycling the ball from defense to attack. One player in particular who has seemed to thrive in this retooled Revs shape is Kelyn Rowe. During the current three-game winning streak where New England has outscored their opponents 8-2, the 24-year-old midfielder has two goals and three assists.
Though Rowe played at the tip of the diamond as a number ten against Colorado and New York City FC, he played as a shuttler last week against the Impact. And both of his aforementioned goals were scored in that game. His ability to win second balls and find space against compact defenses has been quite impressive.
Rowe will be one of many players Crew SC will have to neutralize in order to realize success on Sunday. Forward Juan Agudelo is in fine form reminiscent of the days when he was looked at as one of the USMNT’s best young prospects. And Lee Nguyen has shown great versatility since Heaps’ switch to the diamond, lining up as a second forward and also as a ten.
In summary, the Revs represent a unique challenge for the home-standing Black and Gold. Three points remain necessary but won’t be easy against a hot squad with a motivated former teammate in Kamara. If you’re a Crew SC fan, one can only hope that the Kamara who still plays for the club can outshine Kei on Sunday night.
Photo courtesy of Columbus Crew SC Communications