Columbus Crew SC and the Montreal Impact met just one month ago, but it seems a world away. It will be up to the Black & Gold to continue to make it feel that way with their play on the field Saturday.
Back then, Columbus was mired in a two-month stretch without a win, and it was falling to teams it was expected to defeat. Montreal was one of them. But now Crew SC is unbeaten in four — the only team in Major League Soccer that can say that right now. Concerns about mentality and the inability to rally when conceding the first goal have faded after the club did just that in each of the last three matches.
Meanwhile, the Impact have collected just four of a possible 15 points since that last meeting.
We already broke down one Columbus-Montreal matchup here, so this time around we'll just hit some key aspects of what Crew SC needs to do this weekend to keep on rolling.
Montreal's MO remains the same
Columbus will have to concern themselves with the same things as a month ago. Despite a reputation acquired early in the season (and in the CONCACAF Champions League) as a prototypical counter-attacking side, that's not the reality. The Impact don't boot long balls and hope to get behind the defense. They even sometimes boss possession (they dominated NYCFC in most statistical categories last week). They keep the ball on the ground, keep their passes short and try to build into the box (which they do pretty well; they also put a good percentage of their shots on target).
The Impact may be in a results lull, but they still might be better than a month ago
Montreal's starting 11 should be closer to a first-choice group than it was a month ago. Ignacio Piatti and Andres Romero are back with Jack McInerney as the key attackers, but the club will also be able to feature one of a pair of former Columbus players — Dominic Oduro or Dilly Duka — neither of which were available last time.
There will be a pair of first-choice fullbacks as well, with both Danny Toia and Ambrose Oyongo available. There will be no makeshift choice in Nigel Reo-Coker (which didn't matter last time anyway, since Crew SC completely and utterly failed to test NRC in the least).
The Black & Gold out-played Montreal last time around, but it's not a given they will this time. The Impact completely bullied New York City FC last week (although the current version of NYCFC is not as good as Columbus) in virtually every facet of the match, and if it wasn't for two moments of David Villa being David Villa, Montreal would have found victory.
The last meeting between these two sides was a picture of inefficiency for Crew SC. Twenty shots and a good possession advantage were not enough to get past Montreal. Similar numbers this time around wouldn't be a surprise, even on the road, so Columbus needs to do more with it. Especially against an Impact squad that has proven to be pretty efficient itself (last week notwithstanding).
Yay, everyone is thrilled the Black & Gold figured out how to come from behind, but they still haven't won a game on the road and that is very disconcerting, even if you're a traditional thinker who is OK with getting a point on the road and three at home. The best way to end the winless trend is to score first, so that Columbus can get Montreal chasing the game a bit, stretch the hosts with possession and keep the Impact defense from pushing the ball forward (Toia, Oyongo and Laurent Ciman are all threats in the attack).
This goes without saying, but it was such a problem in the past and the reason Columbus fell to Montreal last time, that it's worth repeating. Piatti and Romero are too good at creating chances and McInerney is too good at poaching for the back line to lose track of any of them.
What the Impact do is force defenders to commit to a player with the ball, then try to connect a short pass to a teammate into space. They are among the leagues top teams for dribbles per 90 minutes, and the majority of their passes are short. Montreal is going to try to connect on through balls around the box, and the Crew SC defense has to be aware of its rotations and spacing.
And no sloppy turnovers to offer up chances in transition. Last time it was only Steve Clark who kept those out of the net.
It seems like every other week we're talking about a new trend — positive or negative — with the Black & Gold. It seems like it is about time to string some positive momentum together for a longer stretch of time, and the upcoming schedule appears to provide an opportunity for that. But it needs to start building this weekend.