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Kamara, luck key components as Crew SC travels to New England

The anticipated matchup with Kei Kamara is here. Here are some keys to consider as Columbus takes on the struggling Revolution.

MLS: New England Revolution at Montreal Impact Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

A shorthanded loss to Sporting Kansas City on the road wasn’t all doom and gloom for Columbus Crew SC, but another loss is another disappointment for a concerned Black & Gold nation.

This week CCSC travels to New England and Foxborough Stadium to take on another MLS original in the Revolution. The Revs are a lot like Columbus when it comes to a disappointing season, and a busy week and poor form may make them ripe for the picking. Or make Crew SC ripe for another disappointing road result.

Here are things to keep an eye on when Columbus takes on New England and former fan favorite Kei Kamara on Saturday.

The busy week effect

It’s hard to say exactly who New England will put on the field. This will be their third game in eight days, and about 70 percent of the starting 11 played in both prior contests.

One thing we do know is that Brad Knighton will start in goal because Bobby Shuttleworth is out on a red-card suspension. Beyond that, it’s hard to say, though Kei Kamara is a sure starter up top for the Revs.

Gershon Koffie is a possibility coming off an injury, which would provide a fresh defensive-midfield pairing option if Daigo Kobayashi were to start (he did not play on Wednesday).

It seems unlikely to see a total overhaul, however, so expect a lot of guys to have a lot of mileage on their legs. That’s something Columbus has to take advantage of — make sure to win the possession battle and make New England chase and work defensively on legs that may not hold up for 90 minutes.

What we know

Regardless of who, we know how the Revolution will play. That has remained consistent.

New England has a lot of attacking firepower, with four attacking players who like take on defenders and a bevy of players unafraid to let loose from distance.

The attack is built on quick interplay between talented attackers as well as crosses.

Lee Nguyen makes things tick with his ability to play quick 1-2 combinations in tight spaces, and he keeps defenses honest with his ability to shoot from outside the box. Teal Bunbury and Diego Fagundez aren’t afraid to dribble at defenders from the wings, and whoever plays on the left (Fagundez or Kelyn Rowe are both options) will pull in centrally, creating room for left back Chris Tierney to overlap and send in crosses.

Watch for right-side overloads, with Bunbury, Ngueyen, Kamara and the right back. New England leads the league with 42 percent of its attack coming from the right side, and is second in MLS in shots from the right (21 percent).

Here’s the Revolution’s attacking dashboard from last weekend against Montreal:

New England attack vs. Montreal
FourFourTwo.com

The right-sided nature of the attack is immediately obvious. They vacate the left channel, using it almost exclusively as a launching pad for Tierney crosses.

Watch for shots from outside the box as well, where the Revolution rank in the top four in MLS (on the flip side, they are 19th in shots from inside the 6-yard box). NE attempts 43 percent of its shots from outside the box (Ngueyn, Fagundez and Rowe seem especially comfortable there), compared to Columbus’ 33 percent. Those long shots help open up space for the attacking quartet to combine in Zone 14.

New England has been successful on set pieces as well, which they get a lot of (the second-most fouled team in MLS). It’s easy to understand why. Nguyen, Tierney and Fagundez are all capable of dangerous dead-ball strikes, and Bunbury and Kamara provide high-quality targets in the box.

With the Revolution one of the best aerial teams in the league and Crew SC one of the worst, it’s an area worth keeping an eye on.

Be explosive

The numbers surrounding New England’s defense are interesting. It’s a unit that’s been much-maligned this season for a team that hasn’t been able to figure things out, and has continued to shuffle things (ending the Andrew-Farrell-at-center-back experiment in favor of sliding outside back London Woodberry into the middle).

Statistically, the Revs have allowed 12.2 shots per game, which is the sixth-best number in MLS. For a team that doesn’t necessarily dominate possession, that would seem to be a sign that they are stingy defensively. But that hasn’t been the case, and none of their other defensive numbers (tackles, interceptions or goals allowed) are particularly impressive. They’ve just managed to limit shots.

The issue seems to be too many mistakes. Teams may not get a ton of shots, but they get shots of decent quality. While their shots allowed is sixth best, their expected goals allowed (24.99) is actually sixth worst. That speaks to the caliber of opportunities opponents have created.

Part of that is emergency defense — New England hasn’t been great at it. So the Black & Gold have to create some harried situations where they can force the Revs’ back line to defend facing its own goal. Columbus hasn’t been explosive enough this season, so that will be a challenge.

Here’s NYCFC’s lone, game-winning goal from Wednesday:

NYC wins a ball in the midfield and doesn’t waste time cycling and setting things up; it goes right for the jugular with a quick ball behind the defense. That quick, incisive attacking movement forces New England to defend facing its own goal, and, presto, Thomas McNamara bangs the ball off Frank Lampard and in.

If CCSC is to attack explosively, Ethan Finlay will be important. If there’s somewhere that New England may be able to be caught off balance, it’s the left side of the defense. With a left winger cutting in and attacking and Tierney pushing high, it creates space down that right flank for Finlay. He has the speed to exploit that scenario and either get looks or stretch the defense severely.

Kei vs. Who?

Much is being made of the first meeting between Kei Kamara and his old team. That’s understandable. One would expect Kei to be very motivated to prove that his former team made the wrong decision in jettisoning him (and theoretically choosing others over him).

Don’t discount, however, the motivation for Ola Kamara to prove that Columbus is just fine without its former striker.

The real worry is the matchup that Kei presents for a severely shorthanded Crew SC defense. With injuries and defections still a major issue, Tyson Wahl’s red card last week against SKC again leaves a major question mark at center back. Who will pair with Michael Parkhurst? Will it be rookie defensive midfielder Rodrigo Saravia? Will it be little-used fullback Chad Barson? Both have filled in during the team’s center-back predicament. It’s unclear which will get the call this time, though my gut tells me it will be Saravia.

Regardless, a Black & Gold side who has not exactly made a name for itself in the air could have major issues dealing with the strength and athletic ability the elder Kamara brings to the table.

Even with Kamara getting a slow start in New England, that’s scary. And although he was held scoreless at midweek, he did knock in two — in characteristic Kei fashion against Montreal.

Maybe Columbus can take solace in the fact that even that was not enough for the Revolution.

Cut from the same cloth

Last week the Black & Gold faced a side that was, like Crew SC, trying to steady itself and find its rhythm.

This week CCSC walks into a similar situation, against a club in New England that is in poor form right now, losing three games in a row.

It’s hard not to consider the similarities between the Revs and Crew SC. Looking back across the past couple of seasons, both have (for at least some portion of that stretch) been the darlings of the league. Expectations for both have been relatively high. Both were MLS Cup runners-up in the past two seasons.

These looked like the two clubs that should be duking it out near the top of the Eastern Conference right now, and both employed some talented American players and won playing attractive, fun soccer.

Yet both find themselves near the bottom of the standings, unable to find answers to their questions.

Another shared interest between these two? Being unlucky. Or so the numbers would show.

Throughout the first half of the season, we’ve talked about finishing troubles for Columbus — just a seeming inability to put the ball in the back of the net when the opportunity arises.

New England has been left wanting in the same area. In fact, they’ve been one of the unluckiest teams in MLS.

It’s generally accepted that there is a baseline finishing rate, and any significant deviation from that typically does not hold up over the long term. The Revolution are waiting for the deviation to end, as is Columbus.

New England’s total-shot ratio (TSR) of .538 is actually second in the Eastern Conference and fourth in MLS. That tells you the ratio of shots taken versus shots conceded, and is considered a pretty reliable indicator of a team’s quality and style of play. Even if you get a few bad bounces, taking significantly more shots than your opponent generally leads to better results on the scoreboard.

That has not been the case for the Revs though.

Here’s one example from New England’s midweek game:

Give Teal Bunbury another look at goal like that and it’s probably going in.

The numbers tell the same tale. PDO indicates shot percentage + save percentage, two statistical categories that not only determine games — whether the ball goes in the net or not — but is also returns to a baseline over time. A PDO of 1000 is considered that baseline; any significant deviation from that hints at an eventual return to the norm.

Columbus’ PDO of 965, therefore, indicates that they’ve been slightly unlucky.

New England’s PDO of 845 is even more of a statistical outlier and, especially considering just a half a season of play (a very small sample size), seems to point to an almost certain bounce back for the Revs’ goal differential and, ultimately, wins.

The club’s GD-xGD (goal differential minus expected goal differential) indicates the same. At -5.48, there’s room for improvement back to 0.00 that should, over time, come. That "unlucky" goal differential is third in MLS.

Tops in that category? Columbus’ -7.52.

Both of these teams are below the playoff line. Both of these teams probably feel pretty hard done by that. Based on the numbers, patience may still be in order.

That leaves this game all the more important, because chances are that at least one of these teams will have the ball bounce there way more often at some point this season and find themselves in a battle for a playoff spot.