After a three-game road trip across all competitions, Columbus Crew SC returns home this weekend.
The Black and Gold welcome the Montreal Impact to MAPFRE Stadium on Saturday night. It’s the last of two meetings between the two clubs during the 2017 regular season. Crew SC defeated the Impact in spectacular fashion up in Montreal on May 13th, with Justin Meram registering the first hat trick of his career in the 3-2 victory.
The two teams come into this game in contrasting form. Columbus has dropped four of their previous five games, getting outscored 12-6 in that span. Of course, five of those 12 goals conceded came in an embarrassing shutout loss to Toronto FC on May 26th. Montreal, on the other hand, are unbeaten in their last four. It includes two straight road draws against Sporting KC and Orlando City SC.
So the visiting Bleu-Blanc-Noir will come into this game confident they can grind out a result. Meanwhile, Crew SC needs to re-establish some positive momentum in order to extricate themselves from this current funk. Sometimes, home cooking is the best remedy. But what needs to happen for Columbus to walk away with the full three points when referee Armando Villarreal blows for time?
Below are a few things to keep an eye on.
Columbus Crew SC-Montreal Impact: What to Watch for
The Spontaneous Rivalry That is Crew SC-Montreal
MLS is dubbing the upcoming slate of games “Rivalry Week.” Three marquee geographical clashes are on tap. Houston hosts FC Dallas on Friday night (9 PM ET, Univision Deportes), NYCFC travels across the Hudson River to take on the New York Red Bulls the following afternoon (1:30 PM ET, FOX) and the Portland-Seattle Cascadia hatefest (10 PM ET, ESPN2) caps it off Sunday.
Crew SC-Montreal certainly doesn’t qualify as a rivalry in the geographic sense. These two do claim the same Canadian team as rivals, but in Columbus’ case it still feels contrived. But sometimes, rivalries don’t come about from sheer geography. They organically develop as a result of happenings on the field over multiple games. This is particularly the case if those games take place with raised stakes on the line.
You need only travel a few hours up I-71 to find a good example from another sport. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors are clearly big-time rivals due to their three straight meetings in the NBA Finals. And even Crew SC and the Impact share some recent postseason history.
The two clubs are less than two years removed from an epic battle in the 2015 Eastern Conference semifinals. Fans still remember the infamous “Drogba Leglock” on former Crew SC goalkeeper Steve Clark in the first leg. And who can forget the second leg at a raucous MAPFRE Stadium that included extra time and culminated in a famous comeback win? It remains one of the most historic playoff series not just in Crew SC history but in the history of the league.
Even the first Crew SC-Montreal game of this year ended with fireworks. Meram’s hat trick goal at Stade Saputo came in second half stoppage time after Montreal clawed back from a 2-0 deficit to tie it. And the dynamic left winger certainly let the Impact supporters know it with his celebration.
It’s not a “Texas Derby,” “Hudson River Rivalry” or “Cascadia Cup,” but recent history demonstrates there’s some animosity seething underneath the surface between these two clubs.
Can Ola Kamara Get Back Into the Goal-Scoring Column?
Halfway through his second season with Crew SC, Ola Kamara continues to shine as a point striker in Gregg Berhalter’s 4-2-3-1. The Norwegian center forward has eight goals which is tied for sixth best in MLS. That deadlock is a veritable logjam, as nine other MLS players have eight tallies on the year, including Kamara’s teammate Justin Meram. As of right now, Kamara is on pace to equal last year’s total of 16 for the club.
But Kamara’s goal-scoring form is a bit off kilter as of late. In his last six starts, he’s managed just two scores even though he did register an assist in Saturday’s 3-1 loss to Atlanta. But in that same game, Kamara played all 90 minutes and couldn’t register a single shot on goal.
Part of it isn’t necessarily on him. In certain respects, a good number nine is only as effective as the service he’s receiving. Though Meram and Higuain are doing a fantastic job creating chances for him to finish (they’ve assisted on five of his eight goals), other players need to step up in that respect.
Ethan Finlay is of particular concern. Through 14 appearances in 2017, he has just a single assist which would put him on pace for two all year. Compare that to last season which, for all intents and purposes, was a down year both for him and the team as a whole. He managed a total of nine helpers in addition to six goals.
Though the ability to finish and getting into the right spaces around goal are the striker’s responsibility, quality service factors into the equation. And if Kamara can get more of it on Saturday, Crew SC will certainly increase their chances of coming away with three points.
Will a Suspect Defense Slow Down Montreal’s Dynamic Attacking Players?
2017 began with much hope for Crew SC’s back line, especially in central defense. The team signed an accomplished international in Jonathan Mensah as a designated player. Josh Williams came in to provide depth and a veteran presence. And Alex Crognale parlayed a successful college career at Maryland into a Homegrown contract. All of them comprised a solid nucleus of center backs along with Nicolai Naess.
Promise abounded early on. Despite a home draw to Chicago and decisive road loss to Houston in the first two games, the unit improved greatly after that. Crew SC won three of their next four games and vaulted to the top of the Eastern Conference. Crognale proved reliable in place of an injured Mensah. And it seems whenever Williams entered the starting XI, the team pitched a shutout.
But things have taken a drastic turn for the worst over the past two months. It began on April 29th when the club blew a 2-1 second half lead at home to NYCFC, losing 3-2. Since then, they’ve either enjoyed a lead or been tied at some point in seven of eight games. They’ve lost four of them.
Frustration is beginning to boil over within the fanbase. Already, the sentiment surrounding Mensah is that he’s a not only a bust, but one of the worst designated player signings in club history. The various ways the team concedes goals, from ball-watching, missed marking and getting bossed in the air to poor anticipation of high pressure and getting killed on the counter, are all tough pills to swallow for fans.
Montreal comes into this weekend’s contest boasting plenty of attacking talent able to pounce on Crew SC defensive lapses. It includes the usual suspects in Ignacio Piatti, Dominic Oduro and Matteo Mancosu. But the club added another dynamic player on May 9th in Blerim Dzemaili. The Swiss international, on loan from Bologna in the Serie A, is already giving the Impact another weapon in the final third. He’s currently one of five MLS players (regardless of minutes) averaging a goal or assist in under 90 minutes.
The Impact are currently tied with D.C. United for the second worst record in the Eastern Conference. But don’t let that fool you. This is a dangerous team on a four-game unbeaten run with key players beginning to find their stride. And they’re looking to close a three-game road trip on a good note.
On the other hand, Crew SC’s position in the MLS standings have been on a downward trajectory in recent weeks. They also suffered an embarrassing loss to FC Cincinnati in the U.S. Open Cup a week and a half ago. It’s going to take a combination of renewed attacking flair, defensive solidity and a great deal of mental resiliency to reverse the current trend. If Columbus can do so, they may begin to resemble a playoff team once more.