The Montreal Impact will be looking to round out their final game at the Olympic Stadium versus the Columbus Crew with a victory. The Crew knocked out the Impact in the 2015 version of MLS playoffs, and Montreal will be looking for revenge on Saturday afternoon. Mount Royal Soccer has turned towards our friends at Massive Report to get some perspective on the Montreal - Columbus matchup.
1. This will be the first time the Impact and Crew have met since the playoffs last fall. Which players made the difference between the teams during the playoffs and will they be on the pitch again on Saturday?
Looking back on that series from last year, the players that come to mind are Kei Kamara and Ethan Finlay on the offensive end (with credit going to Federico Higuain as well) and Gaston Sauro on the defensive side of the ball. Obviously Kamara and Finlay scored the goals in the leg in Columbus, but they were also the catalysts for the Crew SC offense in the two legs and throughout the season. Sauro was a big part of the Black & Gold's improved defensive performance towards the end of the year and was a major factor in shutting down Didier Drogba.
All of these player should be in the lineup on Saturday, but not necessarily in the form they were a year ago.
After his incredible year a season ago, Kamara is off to a bit of a slow start this year as the team's offense tries to get in gear. The striker has one goal through four games and is yet to look as dangerous as he did in 2015. Part of that has to do with the target on his back, as teams are keeping three to four defenders around him and Crew SC is still looking for answers. Finlay's form wasn't great after the Montreal series, but his recent appearance with the U.S. Men's National Team in front of his home fans seems to have woken him up. He had a goal mistakenly disallowed in that game and played arguably his best game of the season last week against FC Dallas.
As for Sauro, he has been pretty solid this year. He dealt with an injury to his finger early that required surgery, but didn't miss a game, playing just three days later. He has been a quality addition alongside Michael Parkhurst at center back and will look to continue his good form against a solid Impact attack.
2. Who are the new faces in the Crew lineup in 2016 and do they have the potential to be a difference maker this weekend?
Unfortunately, we haven't seen too many of the new faces yet this year. Forwards Ola Kamara (yes, there's another Kamara) and Conor Casey have both been hurt. Ola has not yet appeared for the Black & Gold while Casey played just five minutes against the Portland Timbers to begin the season. Kamara was looking good in practice this week, but had a setback on Wednesday. From the little I've seen of him in preseason and reserve scrimmages, he adds a different dynamic to the attack with his ability on the ball and his desire to get in behind the defense.
Another addition who was expected to see time is attacking midfielder Emil Larsen. The Dane has come off the bench for just three minutes and is a bit of a question mark. Head coach Gregg Berhalter said he dealt with a bit of an injury to start the year, but Larsen told me he has been fit all season. He was on the bench last match, but Berhalter elected to use other substitutes.
The only other non-rookie additions are veteran defender Corey Ashe and center back Amro Tarek. Ashe is yet to play in MLS action, though looked good in reserve games, and is dealing with a bit of an injury. Tarek has looked good from what I've seen of him but would have to displace Sauro or Parkhurst in order to break into the lineup.
3. What is one area on the pitch that the Impact might be able to expose the Crew on Saturday?
The counterattack is always a concern for Columbus. With the way Crew SC plays, with the wing backs pushing so far forward, it leaves a lot of space to attack down the outside if the ball is turned over. We saw it against Portland and the Philadelphia Union, though it was not as much of a factor in games with the Chicago Fire and Dallas last week.
While I don't believe the Impact planning on sitting back and absorbing pressure, when the Black & Gold have the ball, the Montreal defenders would do well to keep the attacking players in front of them and look for that quick turnover. Spring the counter and it can often be a man advantage for the attacking team and that is a recipe for success (or failure depending on your perspective).
Harrison Afful-Gaston Sauro-Michael Parkhurst-Waylon Francis
Ethan Finlay-Tony Tchani-Wil Trapp-Justin Meram