Fresh off an off week, Columbus Crew SC welcome the New York Red Bulls to MAPFRE Stadium, where the two Eastern Conference foes will meet for the first time this season on Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET).
The season series last year was about as even as it gets, with the Black and Gold going 1-1-1 against RBNY, drawing at home with a 1-1 scoreline, and splitting the two away games. Columbus lost 4-1 in April, but won 3-1 late in the season, courtesy of an Aaron Schoenfeld brace, fueling the team's playoff push.
New York come to town as a team in transition, with a new head coach in Jesse Marsch, formerly of the Montreal Impact. Marsch's first job has been to fill the void left by the retirement of talismanic striker Thierry Henry. Luckily for him, he inherited last year's Golden Boot winner in Bradley Wright-Phillips, who tied the league record for goals in a season with 27. Marsch has quite a mountain to climb to win the approval of RBNY fans, many of which are still stinging from the surprise firing of former coach and club hero Mike Petke this past off-season.
Before the off week, Crew SC earned a resounding 2-0 victory over rivals Toronto FC. Justin Meram and Kei Kamara were the scorers, with both goals coming in the second half, after a controversial red card reduced TFC to 10 men just before the interval. The Black and Gold bossed the match, both before and after the ejection, but were unable to break the Reds' defense while at 11 v 11. The pressure was ultimately too much for Toronto's defense in the second half, and after the opening goal, the result was never in doubt.
New York come calling after a 2-0 victory in their home opener against D.C. United. Wright-Phillips opened the scoring in the 25th minute, juggling a long pass from midfielder Dax McCarty in the box and cleverly slotting it home for his first of the year. The lead was doubled in the 71st minute as Lloyd Sam finished at the near post after Wright-Phillips found inside the 18-yard box on a counterattack.
The match might have gone differently if Red Bull goalkeeper Louis Robles hadn't made a quality save to deny a Chris Rolfe effort in the 33rd minute, which would have tied the game at one a piece. The Red Bulls also conceded a second half penalty, but Chris Pontius skied the stoppage time spot kick over the bar, giving Robles his first clean sheet of the year, and club their first three points on the young season.
Early season matches can often have late season ramifications and both sides will be looking to take away maximum points this Saturday. RBNY lead the all time series by one win, 26-25-9, but Columbus have the edge at home with 15 wins to New York's 11, with four draws between them. New Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch is 1-2-0 all time against Columbus, while Gregg Berhalter is 1-1-1 against the Red Bulls.
Both clubs will be without players due to the international dates going this weekend. Crew SC head coach Gregg Berhalter will be without both his first choice left side players, as left back Waylon Francis is with the Costa Rican National Team and winger Justin Meram is with Iraq.
Marsch has three players away on international duty in Karl Ouimette (Canada), Kemar Lawrence, and Dane Richards (both with Jamaica). Only one (Lawrence), however, started the last match. Richards was used as a second half sub, mostly as an injection of fresh legs and pace, so it will remain to be seen how Marsch handles late game subs without him.
These international absences will most likely have a huge impact on the match. The Crew SC left side will have to match up against Lloyd Sam, who has looked the most dangerous player on the pitch for RBNY. He's their leading scorer early so far this season with two goals in their first two matches, and will look to exploit whomever is playing on the left (likely Chris Klute). Coach Jesse Marsch has said that he wants to see more of Sam cutting inside, away from the touchline, so it may be a stern test for the young Klute, especially in what is expected to be his first start for his new club.
The other key battleground will likely be in the center of the park. As demonstrated in their previous game, McCarty often pulls the strings for New York, providing service for Wright-Phillips. Also in the side is U.S. international Sascha Kljestan, back in MLS after a stint abroad. A dynamic, attacking playmaker, it will be up to the Columbus midfield to try to deny him the ball.
For Crew SC, the song remains the same. Can Kei Kamara finish the chances created for him? He got on the scoresheet for the first time this year against Toronto, and will be looking to add to his tally (and repertoire of goal celebrations) against the Red Bulls. With attention focused primarily on him and midfield maestro Federico Higuain, goals from the wings will remain an important part of the Black and Gold's game. It will be up to Ethan Finlay and whoever takes Meram's place to contribute.
It's projected to be a cold, cold night in Columbus Saturday, so stay warm, and Stay Massive.