If the stakes weren't so important, the focus might be off the pitch. The match against the New England Revolution marks the return of Kei Kamara to MAPFRE Stadium for the first time since the trade in May. However, with Crew SC mired in 9th place, eight points out of the playoffs, and the Revs in 7th place, two points back of 6th, the attention is fully on the field with both teams unable to drop points.
Crew SC has been dismal at home, collecting a second worst 20 points in 15 games. They desperately need three more to keep any playoff hope alive. They will have to do it with a makeshift lineup. Both Federico Higuain and Wil Trapp are back at practice and are likely available for some role in the match, but neither player is full match fit.
Without Higuain, Crew SC have struggled to consistently create goals. This has posed a challenge for Gregg Berhalter. He's tried to find the right player in that spot. Mohammed Saied, Cedrick Mabwati, Dilly Duka, and Justin Meram have all had minutes at the playmaker spot, but none have consistently created like the veteran Argentine.
Berhalter has also tried to shift around the formation. He's played with two strikers on occasion. He ran the team out in a 3-4-3 against Vancouver. He may have found the answer in another forced change. Center back Nicolai Naess has been forced into the defensive midfield spot with the absence of Trapp and Tony Tchani. He has grown into the role on the defensive side, but he's impressed on the offensive side as he has the vision to pick out a pass. It's unlikely that the Revs will set up with the same high line as Orlando set up. They were ruthlessly picked apart with well timed runs and incisive direct passing and it's not hard to see that playing a deeper line will nullify some of that.
The addition of Naess in the midfield does present something that Columbus hasn't had, quick transitions from deep. Even if the Revolution look to play tighter in the back, Crew SC appear ready to use speed of play to break out quicker in transition. Without Higuain able to carve out chances with regularity, speed of play is another way to create better chances. Throughout the year, Columbus has struggled to push out of the defensive zone with pace. The ball will get stuck on the foot of someone while they pick out the next pass. This is not to say that Naess may not be deliberate to pick out the next pass, that pass has a greater chance of bypassing a resetting defense.
The quick transitions would get the ball to Justin Meram into space to drive at the defense or allow Ethan Finlay or Ola Kamara to run behind the defense. This creates mismatches as the defense recovers into position and greatly increases the likelihood of high quality chances. The addition of Naess reintroduces that possibility of faster, more direct attacking.
The lack of consistent offense has been only part of Crew SC's troubles this year. This team still consistently fails to play strong defense and hold on to leads. No team has given up more late goals, 18, than Columbus. In the first 75 minutes of games, their goal differential is +3. In the last 15 minutes, it's an astounding -9. The defense has given up 12 leads, second highest in MLS. Throughout the season, they've only trailed an average of 15 minutes. When the collapse comes, it comes late, and it comes completely.
The fix to this is even tougher than Crew SC's goal scoring challenges. Berhalter's defensive scheme rarely changes. There isn't much pressure up front, while the midfield has been inconsistent in winning the ball, and too often the opposition can attack onto the backline with speed. Berhalter hasn't wanted to pull back into a defensive shell as the game winds down, that means Columbus has often struggled to close out games.
Playing Naess in midfield has been a high reward move so far, but it comes with risks. Defensive midfielders are tasked with considerable defensive duties and Naess hasn't been tested against a high powered offense with a savvy creator, New England has Lee Nguyen. Gaston Sauro and Michael Parkhurst are well versed with how Kei Kamara plays. Juan Agudelo can conjure a little bit of magic. Naess, if he plays in midfield, hasn't seen a player who can play between the lines as well as Nguyen.
The Revolution have struggled to create solid chances beyond the multi-talented Nguyen. If given space, he's able to create a chance, 8 assists on the year, or finish himself coming out of midfield, 6 goals. He's the team leader in both categories. So while the storyline is setup for Kei's big return, it remains how Crew SC handle Nguyen.
With the season on the line, again, Crew SC desperately needs to figure out how to consistently create, but more importantly, they need to stop the multipronged Revolution attack. While the initial challenge falls to Naess, there is a silver lining in the expected returns of Trapp and Higuain. They can change the game when they are on the field. Berhalter can create a tougher shield on the back line with addition of Trapp, while Higuain, in short bursts can become a super sub difference maker. It's rare with Berhalter's Crew SC to point to the bench for the difference. His rotations have been tight, but now, if the starters can keep hold of the game, Berhalter can change the complexion with the addition of two key players.
While playoff odds may be long, and hope in short supply, there is reason for a little optimism for the game against the Revolution. Crew SC may not be figuring out the big things that have nearly sunk 2016, but the recent tweaks are giving them better chances against flawed teams.