Columbus Crew SC vs. Colorado Rapids: Broken Crew meet rampant Rapids
New-look Crew begin life without Kei Kamara against the surprising Supporters' Shield leaders.
Wow, how things have changed for Columbus Crew SC in a matter of days. Gone is striker Kei Kamara, an MLS MVP finalist last year after scoring 22 goals with eight assists -- plus four more goals to lead Columbus into the MLS Cup final -- following his diatribe against teammate Federico Higuain after last week's 4-4 draw with Montreal. The Sierra Leonean striker, a refugee who reached adulthood in Southern California, was sent Thursday to the New England Revolution for a whole bunch of stuff, none of it players, and now the Crew and coach Greg Berhalter face some huge questions. Such as: What kind of impact will the fallout have? And: Who's gonna start up top?
That frontrunner on the latter query would appear to be Ola Kamara -- also a Sierra Leonean refugee, but to Norway -- who signed with Columbus in February. He's made three appearances off the bench in the last five games and started in Wednesday's friendly, scoring the lone goal in a victory over Veracruz. Veteran Conor Casey, who on opening day made his last league appearance, lasting just a few minutes, also is an option.
The Crew (2-4-3) won two in a row at home, one-goal decisions over New York City FC and Houston, after a 0-3-2 start to the season, then returned home after a loss in Seattle and watched a three-goal lead disappear against Montreal, after Kamara and Higuain's tête-à-tête over who would take a penalty kick eight minutes into the second half. Higuain and winger Justin Meram have been in fine form.
The Colorado Rapids (7-2-2) are MLS' surprise team, atop the Western Conference and Supporters' Shield tables, and every week it seems clearer that, yes, they're for real. Jermaine Jones has been huge in the middle since his six-game suspension ended, with three goals and two assists in five games as Colorado has built a six-game unbeaten streak, five of them wins. They're 6-0-0 at home following successive 1-0 triumphs over Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City and have taken points in three of five road games.
The Crew have dominated the MLS news cycle since Saturday, when Higuain insisted upon taking a penalty kick, and converting, that Kamara wanted. After the game, Kamara ripped Higuain to the media, accusing the Argentine playmaker of “selfishness” and claiming that he'd missed out on the Golden Boot last year because Higuain took the PKs and never sets him up for goals. Berhalter promptly suspended Kamara for this game, and when Kamara bitched about that to the media, he was gone.
Columbus center back Gaston Sauro returned from a hamstring strain that cost him three games with a cameo at the end of the Montreal game, and he got another 45 minutes in Wednesday’s friendly with Veracruz. A few regulars got a half -- captain Michael Parkhurst, left back Waylon Francis, and Meram and fellow midfielder Wil Trapp -- while Berhalter gave goalkeeper Brad Stuver 90 minutes in his first appearance of the season. Also seeing action for the first time: Pittsburgh Riverhounds loaners Marshall Hollingsworth and Ben Swanson.
Jared Watts, who partnered Axel Sjoberg in central defense the first three games of the year, has been on the bench the past three Colorado matches after four games out with a hamstring injury. He's not made it back into the lineup because veteran journeyman Bobby Burling has been playing some of the best soccer of his career. Burling is 6-foot-5 and Sjoberg 6-7, so foes aren't getting much from crosses into the box, but, really, they're not getting much of anything anyway. The Rapids' defense is No. 1 in MLS, with a 0.73 goals-against average.
The Rapids' superb run of results is all the more impressive given their injury situation. Eight of the 14 players who saw action in the opener two months ago have missed action because of one ailment or another, and Marco Pappa (knee) has missed the last four games and defender Eric Muller the last three. Irish defender Sean St. Ledger hasn't yet been available after offseason knee surgery.
Colorado edged 10-man Sporting K.C., 1-0, in Commerce City on Wednesday night as Dillon Serna scored his first goal of the season two minutes after coming off the bench, on a low, 25-yard blast through traffic and inside the right post. Pablo Mastroeni gave only midfielder Shkelzen Gashi, among the starters last weekend against RSL, the night off.
Player to watch: Federico Higuain
A good deal of the attention Saturday will be on Higuain after all that's happened, and there's no reason he won't thrive on it. The 31-year-old Argentine playmaker has been the Crew's difference-maker since arriving midway through the 2012 season, when he was MLS' Newcomer of the Year after contributing five goals and seven assists in 13 games. He's got exceptional vision and skill and is among the league's best passers, and there have been moments, some extended, when a strong case could be made that he was the league's finest player. He has 40 goals and 36 assists in 118 MLS appearances, postseason included, and has scored or assisted at least 17 regular-season goals the past three campaigns. Kamara's arrival last year took some of the finishing load away, and he may need to take more responsibility now. He has three goals and two assists this year, with two goals -- including that troublesome PK -- last week against Montreal.
Colorado's Pablo Mastroeni and Columbus' Gregg Berhalter, both in their third season as an MLS head coach, are former U.S. World Cup teammates. Mastroeni, a holding midfielder, won 65 caps over nine years, and Berhalter, a central defender, made 44 appearances over 13 years.
They were on the field together for both of the Yanks' knockout-round games at the 2002 World Cup, the 2-0 round-of-16 triumph over Mexico and the bitter 1-0 semifinal loss to Germany, which might have finished differently had Torsten Frings been whistled for a hand ball on Berhalter's shot from a Landon Donovan cross in the 50th minute. Mastroeni also played in the U.S. opener of that tournament, a 3-2 victory over highly regarded Portugal. They were teammates again at the 2006 World Cup, where Mastroeni started the first two games but was red-carded in the draw with Italy, and Berhalter was an unused substitute.
Mastroeni, who played 11½ years for the Rapids, is 26-36-19 with Colorado. Berhalter, who spent most of his playing career in Europe and started his coaching career as a player/assistant with the LA Galaxy in 2011, guided Hammarby in Sweden for 18 months before taking charge in Columbus, where he's 34-29-11, including playoffs.
Facts and figures
• Colorado has already won more home games this year (6) than last year (5). They Rapids also posted more home victories than have baseball's Colorado Rockies (5), who have played 18 games at Coors Field.
• Rapids goalkeeper Zac MacMath leads MLS in goals-against average (0.73) and victories (7) and shares the shutout lead (4), and he's carrying a 220-minute shutout streak after successive clean sheets against Real Salt Lake and Sporting K.C.
• The Crew won the last time these teams met, last August in Colorado, to end a five-game winless streak in the series dating to June 2011. That victory five years ago extended their home winning streak to seven games against the Rapids, who won the last meeting in Columbus three years ago.
It's anyone's guess what kind of game Columbus will come up with in the wake of the past week's drama. Losing Kamara weakens them on the field, and it could be too great a distraction, especially since the striker, by all accounts, was popular in the locker room. Berhalter has to be hoping his charges rally around Higuain and play with positive emotion, but that could go either way. Colorado, meanwhile, is humming like a machine, conceding virtually nothing while getting enough offense to claim three points most outings. They've been good on the road, too, and there's not reason to believe they won't be this time. Rapids 1, Crew 0.
Scott French is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJFrench.