Many of the recent Columbus Crew matches featured two teams battling for spots in the Eastern Conference standings with the carrot of the MLS Cup playoffs to entice them. Saturday's game against the Montreal Impact will be a little different, as the Impact have been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention.
In some circumstances, this would make a team more dangerous as they look to play spoiler for other teams and players attempt to prove they still belong on the roster. Columbus head coach Gregg Berhalter isn't worried about that because his team has been in a dogfight each week.
"I don't know," he said when asked if they are more dangerous without the playoffs to worry about.
"The other side of that is, if they are in the playoff hunt... It's all the same. They're all tough games at this stretch and I think that Montreal is coming here to win a game so it's going to be tough."
Obviously the Impact want to win each game, but the focus has not been on MLS lately. Montreal are involved in the CONCACAF Champions League group stage and elected to turn their focus towards that tournament as the regular season went south.
Head coach Frank Klopas rested players in league play since mid-summer in order to have his best lineup available for the Champions League games. This decision was a sound strategy, as the Impact have qualified for the quarterfinals after winning their first three games of the group, but may have cost them a chance to turn the MLS season around. They have one more Champions League game left against the New York Red Bulls, but not until the end of October, meaning they should have full focus on the Black and Gold this week.
Although Montreal has not had the season they would have liked, the team has played better of late. They are coming off two wins in a row, a 1-0 Champions League victory over the Red Bulls and a 2-0 home topping of the San Jose Earthquakes.
After beating the Crew 2-0 last month, Berhalter said the Impact would win some more games this year. He did so because he saw a different team than the side that really struggled early in the year.
"They've got a very good attacking group and defensively they've been solid, they've been very good these last games.," Berhalter said this week.
"There's not much that separates these teams in the MLS. They've been on the wrong side of some results where, if it would have went the other way, they would have been in the playoff hunt. I think it's a good team."
The attacking options are plentiful for Montreal who have three players with at least six goals and three with four or more assists. Leading the front line is typically Jack McInerney, who leads the team with seven finishes this year.
"He's more of an in-behind us type," central defender Michael Parkhurst said of McInerney
"He's always on the line, he's always offside, running off the back shoulder. He's very good at timing his runs for through balls in behind."
Marco Di Vaio and Andres Romero each have six goals, while veteran Justin Mapp leads the team with eight assists. Former Crew player Dilly Duka has also found a home in the midfield, contributing three goals and two assists on the year. According to midfielder/defender Hector Jimenez, the Impact get most of their attack on the counter and that's how they hurt Columbus in the last meeting.
"They do a pretty good job of countering, especially when they went up on us, they sat back a little bit. We found it a little difficult breaking them down," he said.
This time, Montreal will be without midseason Designated Player signing Ignacio Piatti. The attacker is dealing with knee tendentious and left the win over San Jose in the second half. He is not expected to travel, which will hurt the Impact a bit.
"Piatti is a top talent in this league so obviously it's going to make a difference," Berhalter said. "But when I look at Di Vaio, and Romero, and Duka, how he's been playing, and [Flipe Martins,] they've got some talent, they really do."
Although they have been better lately, the defense has been an issue for Montreal. They have allowed 52 goals in 29 games this year, third worst in the league, and have alternated goalkeepers between veteran Troy Perkins and third-year pro Evan Bush.
Despite being shutout in the last meeting, the Black and Gold will hope to continue their hot streak at home and take advantage of a wounded opposition. Another three points is important for the Crew, who take to the road for their next three contests.