Just six days after potentially saving their season with a much-needed win over the first-place team in the East, New York City faces another tough mid-week trial along the perilous road to the playoffs.
The atmosphere will be hostile in Mapfre Stadium in Columbus, where the hosts know how to score goals. The visiting Blues, however, are riding high, having finally cracked the code and found a midfield grouping that can tie it all together like Jeffrey "The Dude" Lebowski's rug.
Yes, with Andrea Pirlo and Andrew Jacobson set sturdily behind Tommy McNamara, Kwadwo Poku, and Mix Diskerud, David Villa can expect plenty of service and steely support against a Crew defense with a reputation for giving up the lead: tonight's hosts have allowed 39 goals on the year, two more than New York City over the same number of games.
The Bronx Blues will no doubt be licking their chops. There's one big question, though, that Jason Kreis hasn't been able to answer:
What is Frank Lampard's ideal role on this team?
We've entered the thick of the playoff race, where teams tinker with their rotations at their own peril. The time for experimentation is over. It's time to win.
Forget about benching Poku to appease Frank. Not gonna happen. In the deep midfield, Pirlo needs Jacobson's physicality and defensive cover in order to be effective. As for McNamara, he brings a pleasing combination of work rate and finishing, with positional flexibility to boot.
Then, of course, there's Mix Diskerud. Sure, Kreis could start Lampard in place of the Mix Master, but that would force Poku to the right wing to make up for Mix's tireless running. Poku covers ground as if he could teleport. He needs to be in the middle.
It pains me to say it, but Lampard -- who is listed as questionable tonight with a tweaked quad -- may be doing Kreis a favor by potentially disqualifying himself from selection due to injury.
Whether Super Franq is ready to go or not, New York City's defensive foundation will have to do its damnedest to avoid getting rocked by a potent Crew attack led by leading MLS goal-scorer Kei Kamara. The Sierra Leone striker has found the net 17 times in just 24 games, and personally accounts for 45% of Columbus's scoring this year, the highest rate in the league.
Opponents who have attempted to smother Kamara have paid for it dearly. Federico Higuian -- brother to Argentinian superstar Gonzalo -- is a potent force on the ball, and midfield maestro Ethan Finlay leads the team with ten assists alongside seven goals of his own.
Much like July's 4-4 barn-burner at Yankee Stadium against Toronto, tonight's match may be an unmitigated goal-fest.
Specifically, here's one thing to watch out for: Columbus has been a revolving door at right fullback. David Villa, of course, prefers to race down the his-left-their-right when on the attack, with Tommy McNamara and Angelino in tow. The Blues may find themselves overwhelming the home team in that slice of the field.
To be fair, New York City has had its own inconsistencies at the fullback position. But hey, they won last week starting R.J. Allen on the right! Remember him? The guy they pulled off the street when Andres Mendoza didn't pan out? The Blues just found a way to win. Though they'll enter tonight's match without first-choice defender Shay Facey, who caught a one-match ban for yellow card accumulation, this is a back line that's feeling as confident as they ever have.
If they deliver again tonight, the playoff dream phases that much closer to reality.
INJURED & SUSPENDED
OUT: Sergio Campbell (right calf strain)
QUESTIONABLE: Harrison Afful (right hamstring strain), Emanuel Pogatetz (right knee sprain), Ben Swanson (right hamstring strain)
New York City:
OUT: Mehdi Ballouchy (left adductor), Javier Calle (hamstring)
QUESTIONABLE: Frank Lampard (left quad), Khiry Shelton (left quad)
SUSPENDED: Shay Facey (yellow cards)
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUPS
New York City:
RUNNIN' THE NUMBERS
- 3: Number of Eastern Conference teams that have conceded more goals than the Crew (Toronto, Orlando City, Philadelphia).
- 94: Combined shots on goal this season for David Villa (49) and Kei Kamara (45). Only Toronto's Sebastian Giovinco (53) has fired more shots on frame.
- 4W-7L-0D: NYC gaffer Jason Kreis's all-time managerial record vs. the Crew.
- 7/4/15: Date of the New York City's last road victory, a 2-1 result in Montreal.
- 55: Columbus's average minutes per goal allowed. New York City concedes at an average of once per 58 minutes.
- NYC assistant coach Miles Joseph on the vital importance of last week's big win over D.C. United:
"It allows the team to feel that all the work they’ve been putting in is justified. There are a lot of new players who came in midway through the year and it’s taken time for everybody to get used to each other and get on the same page. The work and effort has remained the same. It’s nice to see the work we’ve put in is showing in matches."
- Crew gaffer Gregg Berhalter on his team's effort in its last match, a 2-1 win at Colorado:
"We lacked 100 percent confidence in this game, and it’s tough to go on the road at that altitude and win a game, and the guys did it. They didn’t do it through beauty the whole time, they did it through hard work and determination and that goes a long way."
- NYC midfield wizard Andrea Pirlo on the ever-expanding renown of Kwadwo Poku:
"He played a fantastic game [against D.C.]. He had done so before against Orlando and the other teams. He is a player I did not know before. He has incredible physical strength and he is growing so well and so much. He works very hard and he will continue to do so and grow."
- Berhalter on the tremendous contributions of Kei Kamara:
"The guys know how to look for him and to his credit he knows how to be in the right spot. He’s a fantastic goalscorer, he’s done a great job this year so far."
- NYC fullback R.J. Allen on the challenge of stopping Columbus's attack:
"We need to limit [Kamara's] time and space on the ball. We have to always have someone up tight on him and keep his back to the goal. We were very well organized when we played Toronto the first time and limited [Sebastian] Giovinco. All of our lines were very close and tight. We need to limit space on Kamara and guys like Finlay, too. We need to stay close to our midfield and limit their time on the ball."