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Restart: Columbus and Montreal juggle absences as MLS returns

A two-week break seemingly hasn’t helped Crew SC get any healthier. The Impact are missing key pieces too though, as two familiar foes meet for a third and final time this season.

MLS: Montreal Impact at Columbus Crew SC
Justin Meram will carry a heavy attacking load for a shorthanded Columbus side searching for its first win over Montreal this season.
Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Oh, hey there. Fancy meeting you here. It appears that you, like myself, stumbled in here by accident after forgetting during the past couple of weeks that we are actually right in the middle of an MLS season.

Regardless of how you ended up here, welcome back. It’s game time again.

Columbus Crew SC hasn’t been entirely stagnant, picking up a U.S. Open Cup win on Wednesday over the Tampa Bay Rowdies, but it’s been a while since we’ve had an MLS opponent to consider. That changes on Saturday when the Montreal Impact come to town as the 2016 season resumes.

The Columbus v. Montreal matchup is a familiar one — this will be the third meeting between the two clubs, and we’re not even halfway through the season yet.

With that in mind, I won’t waste much time breaking down an opponent we’ve already discussed twice (here and here). Instead, I’ll keep things brief with some important things to keep an eye on this weekend.

A quick reminder

If you forgot how things have gone in the first two meetings, in the first meeting in April the Black & Gold went on the road and fell 2-0; in the second meeting in May, Columbus hosted the Impact, took a three-goal second-half lead and then imploded to settle for a point. It was the last time we saw Kei Kamara in a Crew SC uniform.

Montreal is currently second in the Eastern Conference with 19 points. Columbus, meanwhile, is second from the bottom with 14 points. That’s a five-point gap that can be closed in a heartbeat and shows how much parity there is in the East, but certainly their places in the standings are fair markers of how they’ve played thus far.

So many questions

I’m not even sure where to start, because we don’t really know what the Black & Gold are going to have at their disposal on Saturday. One might expect a break to help a team with some injuries get healthier, but somehow that hasn’t happened. We’re still not sure who is completely healthy, and more players have gone down in the interim.

Harrison Afful is back, which should help stabilize the back line, but center back is still a question/issue. Gaston Sauro is still out and it’s unclear what the status of Tyson Wahl is. In Wahl’s absence, we’ve seen rookie defensive midfielder Rodrigo Saravia slide back, or, in this week’s Open Cup match, right back Chad Barson slide into the middle. Has the break given Wahl enough time to recover and at least offer a true CB pairing?

If we’re being honest, a non-CB having to deal with Didier Drogba is a terrifying prospect. That position alongside Michael Parkhurst will be important to keep an eye on.

We think Mohammed Saeid is out (officially listed as questionable). One would assume that provides an opportunity for Tony Tchani to prove himself again alongside Wil Trapp. Considering Tchani’s familiarity with the system and positive performances in the past, this seems like one of the smaller concerns.

The bigger question is in the attack. Federico Higuain is out, and for those who thought he was the lesser cog in the Pipa-Kei argument, we may quickly find out just how important the Argentine playmaker is for Crew SC.

Up top, there are no strikers. Well, maybe. Conor Casey has been hurt and Ola Kamara picked up a knock and is presumed not fit. Or is he? It wouldn’t shock me to find out that one of those two is well enough — if not 100 percent — to provide an actual forward presence, as opposed to Justin Meram playing the role, as he did mid-week.

Those are really the options — one of those two is in the starting 11, or Meram reprises his Open Cup role.

About that Higuain question...

Nobody else in black and gold is doing this:

Or this (which I’ve posted before):

Pipa is not a No. 10 that attacks the defense with the ball at his feet. But he is the ultimate string-puller. He is currently fourth in the league among players with 1,000 minutes or more in key passes per 96 minutes (behind only Sacha Kljestan, Diego Valeri and Lee Nguyen ... Two guys in that upper echelon who have fallen short of 1,000 minutes, Mauro Diaz and Kaka, also sit just above Higuain).

Who will play puppet master now? Most likely nobody. The offense is going to have to adjust and find it’s tempo elsewhere.

The options to replace Higuain positionally, if not skill-wise, are Meram or Emil Larsen. Meram has played spot minutes centrally for Crew SC, and it’s a role he fills internationally for Iraq. He can sometimes get predictable, but as far as the ability to create for others, he has that capability.

Larsen is a bigger question mark. He’s seen such limited time since arriving that he reportedly wants/wanted to leave the club. Pipa’s injury suddenly opens up an opportunity for him to see significant playing time, we just don’t know exactly what he’ll do with it. His most extended run-outs came in a friendly against Veracruz and this week against the Rowdies. He showed some flashes, but needs more than that.

Our own Patrick Murphy believes Larsen will get a start against Montreal, with Cedrick Mabwati also receiving a nod. We could see a Cedrick-Larsen-Finlay line behind Meram up top.

If Meram is in the midfield, he’s going to have the ball at his feet a lot. If not, it will become incumbent upon Tchani and Wil Trapp to really spark the transition game as deeper-lying playmakers than we’re used to seeing for Columbus. Trapp does it (and is underappreciated for it), but that could have to become option No. 1 — the deep midfielders springing Finlay and Mabwati into space.

Nobody is going to replace Higuain, so the best fans can hope for is some quick chemistry and for Larsen to find his feet and build some consistency. Without Pipa around, it seems unlikely the Dane will be going anywhere soon.

Montreal’s own absences

The Impact will have their own concerns — ones they didn’t face in their first two meetings with Crew SC.

Center back Laurent Ciman is with Belgium in the European Championships, and Ignacio Piatti is out with an injury. Those are big blows — some consider Ciman the best center back in the league, and Piatti is one of the best playmakers.

Ciman’s absence could actually be felt more, with Hassoun Camara or Wandrille Lefevre stepping in. The introduction of Ciman last season made a huge difference for the Impact defense, and his absence should be considered with that in mind.

Ciman is also critical in Montreal’s ability to move the ball and transition into the attack. His 11.2 percent touch percentage is top 15 in the league — not just among defenders, but everyone in the league.

That makes it all the more important that Columbus figures out it’s attacking personnel and pieces something together that can at least force the issue and put some pressure on a defense that’s not at full strength and not as comfortable on the ball.

Piatti leads the team with 2.65 key passes per 96 minutes. He’s capable of changing a game. Like this:

His ability to float anywhere from left to center, swapping positions with Harry Shipp, was part of what made Montreal’s attack tough — two playmakers who could interchange. Now that workload falls to Shipp. He did it in Chicago with lesser pieces around him, but he’s not quite as dynamic as Piatti can be.

I’d expect Johan Vanegas to fill in on the wing after returning from a Copa America stint with Costa Rica, rather than Lucas Ontivero, who has played more minutes than Vanegas thus far but hasn’t seemed to find his footing since joining the team in the offseason.

Double D

Piatti’s absence shines the light even brighter on Didier Drogba. There will be more weight on the shoulders of the star Designated Player to make things happen in the attack. My guess is that he’ll relish that opportunity.

He’s strong, his movement is top notch and he creates for others, both directly and indirectly.

Columbus will have to constantly and closely monitor him, but also not pay him too much respect. Here’s what happens when a defense allows his gravity to take over:

That’s three Crew SC defenders trying, rather poorly, to mark him. Three guys got sucked in because it’s Didier Drogba. That’s how he creates for others indirectly — gravity.

Communicate, keep shape and don’t ball watch.