As part of SB Nation’s “What if” week, we take a look at our own Columbus Crew SC “What ifs.” Today we look at how things might have been different if Kei Kamara and Federico Higuain don’t have the infamous penalty kick argument.
It’s now been four years since the infamous 4-4 draw between Columbus Crew SC and the Montreal Impact. in early May o 2016. While the scoreline is notable all on its own, an incident just after halftime is what remains in the memories of Crew fans.
Already up 3-1, the Black & Gold were awarded a penalty in the 50th minute after Justin Meram’s leg was clipped by Montreal’s Marco Donadel. Kei Kamara, having already scored twice and on the cusp of recording his first career hat trick, asked designated penalty taker, Federico Higuain, to let him take the penalty. An argument ensued over who would step up to the spot.
Eventually, Crew captain Michael Parkhurst had to end the disagreement and Higuain took the shot, scored and gave the Crew a 4-1 lead. Kamara did not celebrate the goal with most of his teammates in front of the Nordecke. A few minutes later, Columbus gave up a penalty to Montreal, which was put away by Didier Drogba. Ignacio Piatti got his second goal of the game a minute later. The Crew held Montreal back until the second minute of stoppage time when former Crew player Dominic Oduro scored to complete the Impact’s comeback.
The spat between Higuain and Kamara did not end there. Kamara spoke out against his teammate following the game and was suspended for the next contest for his comments by head coach Gregg Berhalter. Both players were fined for the on-field incident. A few days later, Kamara was traded to the New England Revolution at the MLS trade deadline for a collection of draft picks and allocation money.
But what if that penalty incident went differently? The 2016 season was one of the worst in Crew history, marred by bad losses, player disagreements and a rash of injuries. Could things have turned out differently if there was never an argument? Here’s what could’ve happened.
The Crew is awarded a penalty only a few minutes into the second half, giving the team the opportunity to extend its 3-1 lead. Kamara asks Higuain for the shot. Instead of giving the ball to him, Higuain suggests giving the opportunity to winger Ethan Finlay (which Kamara actually claimed was Higuain’s initial intent). In this version of events, Finlay accepts, thus preventing the infamous argument and any escalation of tensions between the two players. Finlay steps up to the spot and puts one past Montreal’s keeper to give Columbus a 4-1 lead.
With no argument, the Black & Gold have nothing to distract them from maintaining their lead. More confident after the penalty, Finlay doesn’t foul Piatti in the penalty box and thus doesn’t give up a penalty. A momentary lapse in concentration by the defense does allow Piatti to get his second goal of the night a few minutes later. The Crew hunker down and don’t allow a third goal.
The lack of an argument also means less added time, taking away Montreal’s opportunity for another goal. Columbus wins 4-2 and Kamara is praised for letting Finlay take the penalty. With no public spat, Kei isn’t traded to New England, and the trade deadline passes with no moves by the Crew.
With the outcome of the game changed, the 2016 season could have turned out quite differently. Despite terrible results, the Crew was only six points off of the final playoff spot at the end of the regular season. The win again Montreal gives the Black & Gold two more points, leaving them four points out of a playoff spot without any more changes. Of course, we have no idea if winning this game and keeping Kamara could have saved Columbus’ season. But, here’s one way it might have gone.
The Crew next played the league-leading Colorado Rapids, who was on the team’s third game in eight days. This was originally a draw, but with a ready-to-go striker, Columbus pulls off the upset 2-1. The next big change comes at the end of May when the Black & Gold take on Real Salt Lake. Originally, Ola Kamara bags a hat trick to help Columbus to a 4-3 win. But with Kei instead of Ola, some chances are missed and the Crew loses 3-2. Followed by a loss to the Philadelphia Union, Gregg Berhalter starts experimenting. Early in the second half of the game against Montreal on June 18, Berhalter substitutes Ola on for Kei. With his first extended opportunity on the field, Ola Kamara scores late to secure a tight 1-0 win.
With Kei noticeably unhappy with being subbed off early, Berhalter continues his experimenting in the U.S, Open Cup two weeks later against the Chicago Fire. He initially deploys a 3-5-2 formation, with both Kei and Ola up top. After going down 2-0, Berhalter subs on Wil Trapp and Ethan Finlay and switches to a 4-4-2. The Crew comes back to tie 2-2, with Kei assisting Ola on the second goal. Columbus eventually loses on penalties but emerges with a potentially useful formation.
With Higuain out with a sports hernia injury, Berhalter once again makes use of the 4-4-2 against Sporting Kansas City in early July. The defense remains leaky, but the new offensive shape allows the Black & Gold to go goal for goal. The match ends 3-3. Columbus follows up with a 2-1 win against New England a week later (thanks in large part to Kei Kamara not being on the Revolution roster). Results stay roughly similar to real life until the end of August when the Crew manages to draw the Philadelphia Union 2-2 (a 2-1 loss in reality). Results hold again until October when the Crew beat Chicago 3-1 (instead of a 2-2 draw) and draw with the New York Red Bulls 3-3.
These changes to nine games produce an 11-point swing for Columbus, propelling the team to a fourth-place finish in the Eastern Conference. The Crew sit on 47 points, with 12 wins, 11 draws and 11 losses. The actual season ended in ninth place on 36 points, with 8 wins, 12 draws and 14 losses.
The Playoffs and Offseason
With improved results, the Crew makes the playoffs for the third year in a row under Gregg Berhalter. As the fourth seed, Columbus takes on fifth seed D.C. United in their first playoff matchup since 1999. Having never gotten past D.C. in the playoffs, fans are nervous that the Black & Gold will make an early exit at home. But with Kei Kamara on the field and Higuain healthy, Columbus breeze past United, winning 3-1.
The Crew then face the Red Bulls, who were surely still sore from their loss in the Conference Finals a year earlier. The first leg is tight, but Columbus leaves MAPFRE with a 1-0 lead. At Red Bull Arena though, the Black & Gold offense doesn’t get firing and the leaky defense lets in three, to give the Red Bulls a 3-1 win over the two legs.
Elsewhere in the league, the Crew’s adjusted point total has its impact. Most obviously, the Philadelphia Union is out of the playoffs. Montreal gets pushed down to sixth, meaning a meeting with third-place Toronto FC two rounds earlier than in reality. Despite the changes, the East still ends up like it actually did, with Toronto advancing to MLS Cup.
In the West, RSL’s victory against the Crew pushes the team into fourth place, jumping the Seattle Sounders and Kansas City. Without the benefit of playing at home, Seattle is knocked out by Real in extra time. And with no Sounders in their way, FC Dallas actually reach the Conference Finals, where the team loses to the Rapids.
That’s right, no penalty argument means the Colorado Rapids host Toronto FC for the 2016 MLS Cup. With the best defense in the league (but also the second-worst offense), Colorado holds Toronto to a 0-0 draw and wins on penalties to lift the team’s second MLS Cup title.
Back to the Crew, seeing the potential in Ola Kamara, the club puts Kei on the trade block. With a leaky defense in 2016, Columbus also looks to retool the backline and starts shopping for a new center back. The Black & Gold find a trade partner in the Colorado Rapids, who send MLS Best XI Defender Axel Sjoberg (plus an assortment of GAM & TAM) in exchange for Kamara. The Kei Kamara era ends in Columbus under much more amicable circumstances.
But of course, this is what actually happened:
If you want to take a trip down memory lane, you can read about the full Kei Kamara story here on Massive Report.