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Preview: Columbus Crew SC face Montreal Impact to open MLS Playoffs Semifinal

Two hot teams kick off the semis.

Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

Columbus Crew SC faces their first playoff test this evening. The opponent for the semifinal round is one of the hottest teams in the league, the Montreal Impact. They shot up the standings using their games in hand to finish third. They blew past Toronto and now host the first leg of the two game series against the Black and Gold.

The Impact finished the regular season 7–2–2 since September. They added another win, taking out Toronto FC in the knockout game on Thursday evening. The reason is can come down to two midseason changes by the Impact. Didier Drogba and naming Mauro Biello as the interim head coach. Drogba has scored 12 goals in his 12 games with the team. Biello at the end of August and was able to blend old and new parts of the team into a juggernaut.

Offensive Impact

Montreal was 2–0–0 over Crew SC in the regular season on the back of an offense that picked apart the weaknesses of the Crew SC defense. That offense is even better as Biello has adapted to integrate Drogba into the team.

The Crew SC defense struggling with Montreal isn’t new. Columbus struggled to contain the direct play in two separate games this year. The chances came off of attacks that drove into the heart of the Crew SC defense. Ignacio Piatti pulled the strings and set up direct goals for Dominic Oduro and Andres Romero.

That changes a bit with Drogba. The Impact can still break out at speed, but now they have a forward they can play off of. He’s the best target forward in the league and a clinical finisher. The midfield is adept at playing around him and his vision is near perfect. He can get the ball to the right player at the right time to spur the break.

Piatti is still influential, but he’s adapted well to the arrival of Drogba. With a distributor centrally, he is more than happy to drift wide to find room to operate. He still combines well, but it may be coming from the wings rather than underneath Drogba.

The Impact still have that ability break out and run. Oduro is still blazing fast, but things have finally clicked for Dilly Duka too. He’s not a speedy player, but he’s ruthlessly efficient in his decisions and movement. He will make the right pass and move to the spot that keeps the offense moving upfield.

This presents significant problems for Crew SC defense. Montreal feasts off of teams that press. They use the gaps within the lines to find space and attack in waves. Crew SC don’t press, but they do push numbers forward and a high line in the back. Montreal will have gaps to play into. Gaston Sauro and Michael Parkhurt will be put under stress, but the more than the Toronto and D.C. games, the midfield will have to transition from offense to defense with speed.

The Impact will get turnovers and Piatti, Duka, and the rest of the midfield will get space. That means Tony Tchani and Wil Trapp will need help in containment. Normally, a team will look to use the wide midfielders to provide that immediate press, but Crew SC will have to rely on Harrison Afful and Waylon Francis to close down lanes quickly before the break can truly begin.

Tired Legs

Montreal loves to run, but they will also be combating significant fatigue. They had several games in hand the last third of the season. Those games in hand helped Montreal shoot up the standings, but it also increased the load coming down the stretch. Columbus has played three games since the beginning of October. Montreal has played six. Crew SC’s last game was a week ago. Montreal played on Thursday night.

Biello has tried to keep his squad fresh, but the core of his squad has still played major minutes. The 37 year old Drogba has played 480 minutes in the last month. Piatti has three starts and 359 minutes. Duka has 371. Midfield Patrice Bernier has tallied 298 and Nigel Reo-Coker has 474. That’s a lot of minutes for the core of the team.

In comparison, Crew SC only played a total of 270 minutes in October. With their suspensions, Federico Higuain and Kei Kamara only tallied 180 minutes. After a long season, the lighter schedule has given Gregg Berhalter the ability to rest some tired legs.

This will only be an advantage if Crew SC is able to exploit it. The Impact in transition is dangerous. Columbus needs to be ruthless in transition as well. Crew SC is good going forward, but finding the outlets quickly, such as Kamara or Finlay will immediately put Montreal on the back foot. Higuain is great at finding the ball in transition and then pick out the right pass. Stretching the game on offense will only force more running from Montreal, a team that already has played twice as many minutes down the stretch as Crew SC.

The 180 minute game

Tonight is the first leg of a two leg series. Crew SC must keep focused that they’ll have 90 more minutes at MAPFRE Stadium to get goals. They need to keep their heads if Drogba does the amazing or Piatti creates a moment of magic. Going down a goal isn’t a series ender. Even going down two goals in the first half isn’t catastrophic. Crew SC have a chance to grab a tiebreaking away goal and regaining some advantage coming to the home leg.

If Crew SC start to chase, the get looser in the back and invite more counterattacks that lead to devastating goals. If they chase, there is a greater chance at a rash challenge that earns a suspension and a loss that affects the team’s chances in leg two.

On the reverse, an early lead isn’t a guarantee that the tie is sewn up. The Impact have Drogba, Piatti, and a cast that can score in bunches. They can easily overturn a goal deficit. Crew SC have to stick to their plan. Next Sunday is the time for radical changes if required.

The impact players

Ultimately, the series will come down to how the impact players perform. Piatti and Drogba are instant offense and can bail out a besieged defense. They are the perfect fit for a team that can uncoil and strike in a flash. If Trapp and Tchani are able to wrangle Piatti while Parkhurst and Sauro can slow down Drogba, the Impact aren’t quite the same team on both sides of the ball.

Kamara and Higuain weren’t missed last week in Crew SC’s 5–0 drubbing of D.C. United, but they will have to make a difference at some point today. That may be a hold up play to relieve pressure on the defense or a pass that breaks the trap, but Columbus needs their difference makers to make a difference.

Both teams have a great supporting cast surrounding some very good players. How those players step up in those brief instances under playoff pressure will be instrumental in how the series unfolds.