Right now there are only two teams in Major League Soccer without a win, and you don't ever want to be mentioned in the same sentence as D.C. United at the moment.
Past success does not equal future success, nor does past failure indicate a certainty of future disappointment. But Columbus has not done well against the Impact in recent times. In the last four meetings since the start of the 2015 season, Montreal has won three of four. The only victory for the Black & Gold came in the second leg of last year's playoff series, when Crew SC bested the Canadian side 3-1 in extra time (2-1 in regulation). It had lost the previous three games.
In that one win, Columbus scored the opening goal four minutes in. Need we preach, yet again, the importance of scoring the first goal?
Different, but the same
Montreal and FC Dallas — against which Crew SC managed a draw last week — are different stylistically, but do share some characteristics. The biggest is that both are comfortable without the ball and dangerous on the counter.
But while many associate counter-attacking with a direct approach, Montreal has broken that mold since last season. The Impact like to hit on the break, but they do it with passing, not long balls. They move the ball out of the back with defenders that can pass and a pivot in defensive midfielder Eric Alexander who touches the ball more than anyone on the squad.
Montreal is heavily left-sided in attack, which makes sense when they're playing either Igancio Piatti or Harry Shipp — two good chance creators — on the left side. Whichever isn't on the left plays centrally in a 4-2-3-1 formation, and the pair has the freedom to interchange and rotate. That partnership is key to the left-side overloads that the Impact love to try to exploit (42% of the attack comes on the left side, second most in MLS), and the team tends to maintain relatively compact without any true chalk-touching wide attackers. Even newcomer Lucas Ontivero on the other side is a more narrow attacker, and the fullbacks don't provide a ton of width in the attack either.
Breaking down the wall
We've seen many times how a team that keeps numbers behind the ball can flummox Columbus' attack, simply keeping shots to the outside and battling for aerial balls. Montreal isn't afraid to attack, but it will keep plenty of players behind the ball, and will remain compact. Left back Donny Toia — perhaps one of the more underrated full backs in the league — tends to stay in position defensively, and the center back pairing of Laurent Ciman and Victor Cabrera has been very good. Throw in the defensive midfield pairing of Eric Alexander and box-to-boxers Callum Mallace or Kyle Bekker, and Montreal often has six players behind the ball even in the worst of moments.
Even winger Ontivero has pitched in well defensively on the right side.
The defense leads MLS in interceptions, which is a bit crazy considering they don't press. It says a lot about how well they read the game and keep shape in order to remain in passing lanes.
It all leads to a major challenge for Columbus, especially with struggles finishing thus far; high quality chances may be hard to come by.
The key may be in two spots — the play of Harrison Afful and the continued strong form of Federico Higuain.
Toia is a defensively responsible right back, so it will be important for Afful to push up and create numbers on that side, either creating a mismatch or forcing Piatti to play more defense than he wants to. After the Dallas game, Gregg Berhalter talked about wanting more aggression out of his fullbacks in the attack. Here's a spot to look for that.
(On the other side, CCSC could use a rejuvinated attacking Waylon Francis — Hassoun Camara will push up from Montreal's right back spot, and that could create space which Francis can exploit and create room for Justin Meram as well)
Higuain, meanwhile, could hold the key to being able to get Montreal out of its defensive shape a little bit. His free-roaming role means he can pop up anywhere, forcing the Impact to make decisions about who follows, who switches and who is responsible for the area Pipa shows up in. If Higuain can drag defenders just a step out of position and make good attacking combinations with Meram, Kei Kamara and Ethan Finlay, Crew SC can create some quality chances.
Last week was not a banner one for Wil Trapp or, in a substitute appearance, Tony Tchani. There is, however, little doubt (if not full acknowledgement) that the defensive midfield duo is hugely important to what Crew SC does. Trapp leads the team in touch percentage, so a failure on his part to make smart decisions with the ball can totally derail things.
The Seattle Sounders came away with a 1-0 win over Montreal last week, and a big part of that shutout was the play of Osvaldo Alonso breaking up plays in the midfield. Because of the narrow attack and presence of either Piatti or Shipp as a central attacking midfielder and chance creator, the ability to bust up the attack in more central zones will be necessary.
The Impact are a great team in transition, so it's a given that at some point Columbus will be caught up field and require some emergency defense and a hard, aggressive effort tracking back. Laziness by Trapp or Tchani is something that Montreal is set up to exploit and will be unacceptable from a Black & Gold perspective.
A factor of luck
Columbus has been fortunate in each of its last two games, both of which it took points in. First, Crew SC faced a David Accam-less Chicago. Then it was a Dallas side with no Mauro Diaz.
Now it's Montreal without Didier Drogba (all turf and no grass makes Didier an absent boy). Whether that matters or not is one question (the handful of minutes he was on the field this season were not impressive minutes for the Impact), but it is, at the least, one less thing Crew SC needs to plan for.
So there's that.
But there's also the reality that last week against Seattle, Montreal had a chunk of half chances. Although it was a second consecutive defeat for the Impact, their passes in the attacking third, chances created and shots were all in line with their first two games, in which they scored three goals each. In other words, the dry spell likely won't continue unless CCSC significantly impedes Montreal's ability to get into the positions it wants (like Dallas did).
Columbus, meanwhile, continues to field questions of, "Hey, when are you guys actually going to put the ball in the net?"
Fans should still believe that the ship will stabilize and the numbers will normalize — this is, after all, statistics. Berhalter certainly feels that way.
"We know we're creating plenty of chances. We're comfortable with that," he told the media this week. "We're comfortable with where our defense is playing. So now it's just about sticking through the process and being confident with who we are, and over time it's going to correct itself."
Is this the week?