Last Saturday's 2-0 defeat of Toronto FC was a big win for Columbus Crew SC. Not only did it lock up the Trillium Cup, the trophy for the winner of the regular season series between the two rivals, but with the win, the Black & Gold secured a spot in the MLS Cup Playoffs.
The victory was a good step, but it was also bittersweet.
In the 31st minute, attacking playmaker Federico Higuain was issued a yellow card for taking down TFC midfielder Michael Bradley. Thirty-two minutes later, forward Kei Kamara was given a caution for a light foul near midfield.
Both players will miss Crew SC's final match of the regular season on what Major League Soccer is calling "Decision Day."
"We know it's going to be very difficult to replace the quality of Kei Kamara and Federico Higuain," Columbus head coach Gregg Berhalter said this week.
Higuain has played in all but one of Crew SC's games this year and has eight goals and nine assists to show for it. Kamara, who has also only missed one match, is tied for the league lead in goals scored with 22 on the season.
Both are impact players this year and both will have to be replaced Sunday against D.C. United in a match that could determine who finishes in second place in the Eastern Conference and avoids the Knock Round of the playoffs.
For Berhalter, this week is about figuring out how best to play without two of the players that make the team go.
"I'm sure we'll do something a little bit different," he admitted on Tuesday. "We still have an identity. We have a philosophy that we'll stick with, but within that structure, I'm sure there will be some slight alterations."
Columbus has no like-for-like replacement for either player. There is no one as creative and who sees the field like Higuain and no player with the freakish athletic ability like Kamara. But the Black & Gold have a deep squad and that will come into play this week.
"Some other guys are going to have to step up," Berhalter said. "Some other guys are going to get chances.
"It's a good opportunity for other guys to get a chance in a game that means a lot. That's why we built this team."
The most natural replacement for Higuain would be midfielder Ben Speas. The 24-year old Ohio native has played only eight games this year with just two starts, something Berhalter admits likely eats at the midfielder.
"I think disappointing for him personally," Berhalte said of Speas' year. "I think he would have hoped for more playing time and that's the way it goes. Federico's been performing exceptionally well. He gives us a high level of quality and it's been difficult for Ben to get on the field in other spots."
This is a potential opportunity for Speas, but he is not the only player Berhalter is considering to replace Higuain.
"We feel like we have a number of options that can play that role," Berhalter said. "If you remember last playoff game in New England, it was Hector who played there. So we think Hector's an option, Ben Speas is certainly an option. So we feel like there's a number of guys that can potentially step up."
Another player is Mohammed Saeid, who fans have seen mostly play in replacement of Wil Trapp. Saeid has spoken of his natural position, one similar to Higuain, throughout the season and has been used there in a substitute's role.
In the absence of Kamara, the forward position is easier to fill. The Black & Gold have two main options: Jack McInerney and Aaron Schoenfeld.
"I would say those are obviously two guys that we are looking to fill that void this week," Berhalter said of the forwards.
McInerney was acquired earlier in the year in a trade with the Montreal Impact and Schoenfeld started in a playoff game for Columbus a year ago.
Since arriving in Columbus at the beginning of August, McInerney has one goal in four appearances, but has been limited by a hamstring injury of late, which Berhalter said is doing better.
"I'm not sure of that," he responded when asked if the injury will make him a doubt to replace Kamara. "I think he'll be available for selection."
In his four years with Crew SC, Schoenfeld has made 50 appearances, but scored just four goals. At 6-foot-4, he is a more similar player to Kamara than McInerney, but doesn't have the proven scoring record.
"A lot of it is going to depend on training this week and training this month, what they've been doing this whole month," Berhalter said. "We'll take a look at that, but we'll get one of those guys ready."
A win is what Columbus are looking for this weekend and to do that, these replacements must be up to snuff. All season, the Crew SC coaches and players have talked about the depth of the team. Now is the time to show it.