The Montreal Impact will kick off their first ever Major League Soccer (MLS) Eastern Conference Semifinals series at home on Sunday against the Columbus Crew SC.
Montreal is hosting the first leg because they finished as the third seed in the East. Columbus ended their 2015 campaign in second place. The Crew will host the decisive second leg on Nov. 8th at MAPFRE Stadium. However, the two teams will have to play in Canada first.
The match at Stade Saputo will mark the 16th meeting between the two clubs. The Crew enjoys a slight advantage with a (W-D-L) 8-2-7 overall record. However, when the matches are played north of the border the Impact have the edge: going 3-1-2 and having a positive five goal differential.
In the 2015 regular season, Montreal faced the Crew twice and both times the Impact won. The Canadians have scored five times and only conceded one goal in the process. Columbus has struggled against the Impact this season, and to make things worse, they have yet to face Didier Drogba.
Ever since Drogba has arrived the Impact has been a tougher team. In the games that Drogba has played in, Montreal has gone 8-2-2. They have not lost a game since Oct. 7th against the New York Red Bulls (2-1) at Red Bull Arena. The Impact has not lost at home since Aug 22nd against the Philadelphia Union (1-0), which was the former Ivory Coast international's first appearance for Montreal.
However, the defense for Montreal since Drogba arrived has also improved vastly. In the first 23 games Montreal’s goalie Evan Busch only managed to get 4 shutouts. Since the Drogba resurgence began and the former Impact’s head coach Frank Klopas's dismissal at the ending of August, Busch and his defense have enjoyed six shutouts in 12 games. One of those results was the 3-0 home victory against Toronto FC in the Knockout Round on Thursday.
However, the Crew cannot just afford to double team Drogba on Sunday to secure a victory in the first leg. The Impact have other options: attacking midfielder Ignacio Piatti is one of them. In the two matches he played against the Crew this season he delivered two assists, fired off three shots while also placing two of them on target. His constant effort and creativity forced Columbus to foul him twice.
The Argentinean native has only played with Drogba seven times, but he has still benefitted from his presences: scoring two goals, dishing out four assists, firing 22 shots and placing 11 of them on target. He has been the victim of seven fouls. However, like the defense he has become tougher and does not give up ground or the ball without a fight. The new attitude for the Canadian club has resulted with the South American native committing eight fouls.
The Crew on Sunday will be facing a much more confident Impact squad on Sunday. Even against a less explosive Montreal side Columbus struggled with a negative four goal differential in just two games. However, if the Crew wants to leave the first leg with a victory, then center midfielders Will Trapp and Tony Tchani must control the tempo of the game. By doing that they will prevent the Impact of getting Drogba involved. In the 12 games he has participated, Montreal has scored 20 times. He has been involved in 13 of them. Drogba scored all 12 of his goals in just 10 starts. If the Crew can find a way to take him out of the game they will improve their chances of stealing a positive result and getting a goal or two on the road.
Columbus’s captain and defender Michael Parkhurst and goalie Steve Clark will need to be ready to repel the attacks Montreal create. No matter how good Trapp and Tchani perform on Sunday the Impact will break through a few times. With their home fans cheering their club on, Montreal will produce opportunities, so Parkhurst and Clark will need to be the anchor for the Crew.
The few times Columbus’s attack will be able to stretch their legs, Ethan Finlay, Justin Meram and Federico Higuain will need to lead the charge. The three of them must slow down the Impact by retaining the ball. However, Columbus’s forward Kei Kamara cannot let his chances go to waste. The Sierra Leone international must keep Busch and his defense busy and push them to breakdown. An early goal for the Crew might lead to a rough Sunday for the Impact.
Prediction: Montreal 2-1 Columbus
Drogba will score a late goal to give the Impact a narrow 2-1 victory. However, the Crew getting an away goal might cost Montreal the series in the end.