One month ago, Columbus Crew SC traveled north of the border to take on the Montreal Impact. A 2-0 loss saw a pragmatic Black & Gold side continue to suffer from some of it's (negative) calling cards — poor finishing and set-piece letdowns.
Since then, Columbus got its first two wins of the season. But just when things were beginning to feel a little rosier, Crew SC put together a dud last week.
Montreal, meanwhile, has a loss and two draws in its last three games.
All of that provides some context for what we'll see on Saturday. Here are some things to keep an eye on.
It almost feels like a waste of my finger muscles to type "finishing." Duh.
The last time these two teams played, Columbus put just two of 10 shots on goal. Making it worse was where those shots were mostly from zone 17 (i.e., mostly central, inside the 18-yard box).
Goals against defenses with issues let this whole problem fade to the background a little, but it raised its ugly head again last week. Against Seattle, CCSC put just four of 17 shots on frame. Again, 10 of those 17 shots came from inside the penalty area.
The most obvious thing Columbus needs to do to give itself a chance? Hit the target.
Montreal's defense has been one of the best in the league this season, and the underlying numbers show that Evan Bush, too, has been on of the best at his position in MLS in 2016 (his -2.85 GA-xGA is second best in the league, just ahead of Steve Clark and just behind the guy Crew SC faced last week, Stefan Frei).
Make Bush earn his paycheck this weekend.
Something that will help with the above issue is getting Kei Kamara in more dangerous spots. I talked about this after the earlier loss to Montreal. Kamara needs to remain focused on getting into the box, and his teammates need to do a better job of allowing him to do that. He's spent more time this season with the ball at his feet facing goal deeper.
Last week against Seattle was slightly better, but not what it should be. He had 30 touches against the Sounders, with 11 of those coming in the attacking third. Six of them came inside the 18-yard box.
Compare that to the game against New York City FC. Kamara had eight touches in the box and 18 in the attacking third. He had 40 total touches. For visual purposes:
That is what he gets paid to do.
Obviously Montreal's defense is a totally different caliber, but his touches need to go up and he needs to be freed up to get more of them in the right places. Can he turn some frustration after last week's loss into a strong performance on Saturday?
Just get it right.
Last time against the Impact, one of the goals came on a mismatch in the box on a set piece — a mismatch that should have never happened.
Last week the decisive goal came following a free kick — one that Columbus never seemed prepared to defend against.
Montreal is dangerous on set pieces. In two games last week, it scored twice on set pieces. Throw in the fact that both of the Impact's goals against CCSC came on headers, and the aerial battles that occur on set pieces comes to the forefront.
Where art thou, Gaston?
The last time we saw Gaston Sauro, he was limping off the field in Montreal. The game was scoreless at the time.
The center back is currently listed as questionable, but is (theoretically) available for Saturday's game. It seems unlikely we'll see him, as one would think he'd need to work himself into fitness after some time off, but Tony Tchani got the start last week, and I said the same thing about him.
Columbus has performed admirably without Sauro, but it's fair to say he may have made a difference on at least some of the goals that the Black & Gold have given up since his departure. He certainly would help with the set-piece/aerial defense mentioned above.
His physical presence could also be important for handling...
Montreal's lineup could be pieced together slightly differently this time around, but the only significant alteration will be the presence of Didier Drogba. The game is on grass, so we know Drogba will be playing.
The striker has not been the firecracker he was when he came onto the MLS scene last season, but he's still a difference maker, and the Impact seem much more comfortable with his presence now than in his first appearance or two this season, when he had not been working with the team.
I probably don't need to extol Drogba's virtues, but his movement is outstanding, his strength is tremendous and he puts away his opportunities.
Drogba's return has pushed Dominic Oduro from the top to the right wing. Montreal has chosen to keep Oduro's speed on the field (rather than bring in Lucas Ontivero), and it's not uncommon to see Drogba drop relatively deep to stay involved while Drogba slides up and provides a pacy outlet. It's a dangerous combination — Drogba's polish and strength and Oduro's ability to spring loose in the blink of an eye.
Drogba is second on the team in key passes per 96 minutes (1.9, behind Ignacio Piatti) and his 5.44 shots per 96 is fourth in MLS among regular players, behind Fabian Espindola, David Villa and Sebastian Giovinco.
In other words, he puts his teammates in dangerous positions as well as gets into them himself.
Columbus can't afford to ball watch, as some teams have been caught doing with Drogba on the field. He's ruthless and will pick apart the defense every time it does that, whether it's with ball placement or his own movement.