Forget about the mid-week horror show. It's time for Columbus Crew SC to move on.
A quick turnaround sees the Black & Gold return to the friendlier confines of MAPFRE Stadium on Saturday to host the Montreal Impact, which are 3-2 since falling in the CONCACAF Champions League final. Here's a quick breakdown of what Columbus will see and some keys to reverse the recent troublesome trends.
Who will Columbus face?
Montreal has made a habit of lineup rotation, and a busy week only increases the chances of changes. It's hard to predict exactly who the Impact will run out against Crew SC. Many of the "sure things" have already played two games this past week. Will Frank Klopas stick them in the lineup again?
Ignacio Piatti, Laurent Ciman, Jack McInerney, Callum Mallace and Danny Toia all played against both Chicago (a 3-0 loss) and Vancouver (a 2-1 win). All would be considered first-choice starters.
Both Dominic Oduro and Dilly Duka are dealing with injuries, so neither of the former Crew SC players will be on the field Saturday.
The key for the Black & Gold will be preparing for the Montreal system, rather than a set of players, because there's no spot on the field other than Evan Bush in goal that appears to be a lock on Saturday.
How do the Impact play?
Montreal has created a reputation as a team that absorbs pressure and then goes the other way. That's not entirely accurate, but the idea you have in your mind of the Impact, however, may not be reality. The club has not, in fact, scored a single counter attack goal this season.
A look at American Soccer Analysis' Proactive Scores for MLS teams shows Montreal has been one of the league's most proactive sides all season. Proactive describes possession sides that try to control the game, while reactive is about sitting back and keeping defensive shape. It's important to understand how ASA's breakdown works to understand why their position in those rankings seems to stray so far from popular perception.
Montreal does not do a lot of proactive things. They do not dominate possession and they do not press on defense, where they also block a lot of shots (something that generally happens with reactive sides). But what they do that boosts their proactivity score is they are a team that focuses on short passes. They are not incredibly direct and their passing percentage (79.2) is actually the fifth-best in MLS.
The Impact keep the ball on the ground, and although they often attack and shoot from either side of the field, the buildup is not through crosses. The club is dead last in the league in aerials won per game, which tells you something about what they do both offensively and defensively.
A relatively standard 4-2-3-1 is the formation of choice for Klopas' squad, which often skews to the right. They are actually second in MLS in percentage of the attack that comes through the right (40) and first in percentage of shots that comes from that same side (26). Meanwhile, they are the least likely team in MLS to score through the middle of the field.
Who are the Impact's key players?
Piatti was a home run signing for the Impact last year and is really the only player that the opposition loses sleep over. He has two goals, an expected goals (xG) of 3.11 and an xG + xA (expected assists) of 4.37. He has 17 key passes on the year. After that, the numbers drop off significantly. Justin Mapp was the yin to his yang, but his loss to injury early in the year leaves a big gap. Of the regular attacking players, no one touches the ball more than Piatti (touch % of .100).
He sits in the middle of the 3 in the 4-2-3-1. The fact that the Impact generate so little of the attack through the middle should indicate to you that he floats around the field a good amount.
The question of whether Piatti plays after already going twice in the last seven days is a critical one, because the Montreal attack is completely different without him.
Jack McInerney has been the regular striker and is one of the more traditional No. 9s in the league. He poaches and drops back to get Piatti and the attacking wingers involved. It's not uncommon for McInerney's average position to be even deeper than Piatti and a winger.
By the numbers, Andres Romero is the second-biggest attacking threat behind Piatti, but he played midweek. He could either replace Piatti in the middle or sit on either side. Other wing options beyond Duka are the more defensive-minded Eric Alexander, Oduro or Maxime Tissot. Fullback Ambroise Oyongo even got a run out on the left side of midfield in the loss to the Fire.
The defensive midfield will likely see Marco Donadel step back in after sitting out the Whitecaps match. He's generally filled the more defensive role next to the box-to-box of Mallace. Mallace, however, has played both games this week, so there's the question of whether he'll play. Alexander could slide back into defensive midfield to fill in Mallace's role. Patrice Bernier has moved into a substitute role this season, so it seems unlikely the 35-year-old would start just three days after getting the nod and going 81 minutes. Nigel Reo-Coker is also an option, though he's been used more often as a (shaky) fill-in at right back with the pairing of Mallace and Donadel favored in the midfield.
Much like the attack centers around Piatti, the defense has come together around center back Ciman, who also may have heavy legs this week. He and Piatti have played more minutes than any field player on the roster after his signing this offseason. He's been a positive addition, though he can be a bit aggressive.
The only surefire starter this weekend, I would think, will be Bakary Soumare — a regular starter who took a midweek break. Other than him it could be any number of combinations. Toia has put together a solid campaign outside of an injury, but has also played twice this week. Expect Oyongo — who was a bit unsettled after his trade from New York Red Bulls in the offseason — to start.
What does Columbus need to do?
First, they need to figure out a starting 11. The choices on Wednesday were a bit of a mess but continued rotation is likely. Michael Parkhurst will certainly be back on the field, and whether he pairs with Tyson Wahl or Emanual Pogatetz (who's still looking for that game off that Gregg Berhalter wanted for him), it should be a more comfortable pairing than midweek.
One question will be whether Waylon Francis starts after a few issues on Wednesday (and a subbing off) or if Chris Klute or Hector Jimenez gets the call on the left side. Whoever it is will have to contend with the often unbalanced Impact attack that will come at them quite often.
A more settled center back pairing will also be key with the way that McInerney drops into the midfield and links up with Piatti and Romero (among others); communication will be key. The defensive mid will also need to muck things up before it's too late. A little pressure in the midfield will go a long way in preventing the Impact from taking advantage of their attacking movement. Will that be Mohammed Saeid again?
Kamara is the perfect aerial target against a team that's not necessarily strong in the air. The attacking group will also need to be active. The Montreal defense does give up a lot of shots (14.2 per game; third-most in MLS) and good runs can open them up. On Wednesday, Vancouver probably deserved better because it peppered the Impact a good deal but didn't capitalize.
The Impact aren't a team likely to boss possession. Going into Wednesday that looked like an area of the game that Columbus should have controlled against the Union, didn't and paid the price. Crew SC will need to play more like itself this time around to dictate circumstances.
Wednesday was a mess everyone will soon try to forget. Had the Black & Gold come out of that match with three points (or any points, for that matter), Berhalter may have had more flexibility this weekend. Now, though, it would seem we'll need to see a closer-to-first-choice lineup to get things turned around in a winnable game.