As the Impact entered their playoff home-and-away series against the Columbus Crew in last year's Eastern Conference Semi-Final, the mood was positive for the bleu-blanc-noir. Having just thoroughly dominated their fiercest rivals, Toronto FC, in the knockout round, many fans were already previewing a Conference Final against the New York Red Bulls.
The Crew, after all, were seen by many as an inferior team to TFC, regardless of their higher place in the standings. The Impact were scoring at will, led by mid-season arrival Didier Drogba, and in general, the team felt untouchable.
The team quickly learned, however, that the Crew were no pushover. Over the course of the two legs, the Crew's defense, which was completely rebuilt during the course of last season, completely eliminated (albeit, an injured) Drogba, who was dominated by Gaston Sauro. The Crew looked ever-dangerous on the attack, with Federico Higuain pulling the strings for them as a No. 10 in the midfield.
Columbus was also spoiled with an abundance of talented wingers: Ethan Finlay, Hector Jimenez, Justin Meram, Emil Larsen and Cedrick Mabwati are all capable of terrorizing opposing fullbacks. Add to that extremely strong fullbacks of their own, with Harrison Afful and Waylon Francis showing no hesitation to join into the attack. This could prove even more dangerous than usual, as regular at right-back Ambroise Oyongo is still recovering from an injury, and is questionable to return this week.
Even if he does, however, it would be difficult to expect him to provide a full-strength performance, especially against such talented wingers. This could mean a third consecutive start for Hassoun Camara, who was targeted heavily in Seattle, most notably in the first half, with the Sounders, hitting 15 crosses in the game, completing 33%.
This liability could prove even more costly against Columbus, as they have arguably the most talented aerial threat in the entire league in Kei Kamara. As we saw in last year's playoffs, Kamara is capable of out-jumping any center-back, meaning that if the service is good, he will be offered several clear-cut scoring chances in the game.
Of all the goals allowed by the Impact year, all but one have come directly off a set piece (80%), including the winner this past weekend in Seattle, when Evan Bush misjudged the trajectory of a corner kick, leading to Clint Dempsey's header.
In order for the Impact to return to its winning ways, it will be essential to limit Columbus' set-piece opportunities. The Crew will earn their fair share of crossing chances in the run of play, mainly due to their amplitude of wingers; the Impact have to avoid committing needless fouls in their defensive third, or the Crew will make them pay.
Who are you watching on the Crew?
Can the Impact get back into the win column this weekend?