1. Columbus Crew look great: Beating the Montreal Impact is not easy. Powered by their new coach, important tactical adjustments and, most of all, the presence of Didier Drogba, the Impact decimated MLS throughout September and October, months that coincided with the above changes. They have star power (Drogba), a dynamic playmaker (Ignacio Piatti), a defender that can run with anybody (Laurent Ciman) and a capable goalkeeper (Evan Bush).
They were like the guy that comes to the party really late but ends up being the life of it by the end.
But the Crew, despite losing the first leg in Montreal 2-1, squeaked out an extra time, 3-1 victory back in a place where English is spoken. They knew anything less than a victory would give the upstarts a matchup with the Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals, so they put their heads down and fixed the problems that prevented them from winning back in Quebec.
Kei Kamara, who was a big reason for Columbus' success this season thanks to his 22 goals, was essentially invisible in the first leg. But in the second, he finished off a Waylon Francis cross early on and almost scored another header eight minutes later, hitting the cross-bar after out-jumping the entire Impact team. He had his struggles–missing a penalty he never should've taken among them–but came through in the clutch, netting yet another header in extra-time to secure a Crew victory.
Kamara clearly is a crucial part of this team (although they did win 5-0 without him in the lineup a few weeks ago) and needs to play well in order for the Crew to have success.
The Sierra Leone-international was able to get the ball more often in better positions. Instead of being forced to sit way deep into the midfield, Kamara spent most of his time in the final third when not defending for his life at the end.
Here is a comparison of his successful passes between the two legs:
The top image is the first leg. He made the majority of his passes almost directly on the midfield line, while in the second leg he was pushed farther up the field. If you discount the two passes he made when he basically became a center-back for a minute or two late in extra-time, Kamara was mostly in the Impact's half of the field.
This resulted in more shot attempts. He had only one shot overall in Montreal, and that was a low-percentage, long-range blast; back at MAPFRE Stadium, he fired six shots, all of which from inside the box.
Improvement is evident here.
The Crew also saw two other noticeable enhancements from last week's match:
-Ethan Finlay was a lot better.
-The fullbacks were a lot more helpful in the attack.
Finlay showed that he has incredible fitness by going nearly 100% for the entire 120-minute match. He didn't become invisible, like he was in the first-leg along with Kamara, and as a result compiled six shots, two of which were on target, and one went past Bush.
The fullbacks, Francis and Harrison Afful, did what they did against DC United in the 5-0 victory: overlapping, crossing, and overwhelming a backline that relied more on stopping attacks through the central channels than on the wings. While neither of Montreal's outside backs were sliced apart like Taylor Kemp was on Decision Day, Afful and Francis still had very good games.
These three things will combine to make the Crew a deadly force for the Red Bulls to deal with. Could the Black and Gold make it all the way to the MLS Cup Final? It seems like a definite possibility.
2. Red Bulls defense holds up: It wasn't pretty, but the Supporter's Shield winners New York managed to overtake feisty DC United by a slim margin. 2-0 on aggregate, DC's attack force was stopped well by the two center-back pairings of Matt Miazga and Damien Perrinelle (first leg) and Miazga and Ronald Zubar (second).
Miazga is the most promising defender in the USMNT talent pool and is getting deserved interest from Europe. He and Perrinelle made up the combination that was the most successful in the regular season–the Red Bulls went 14-3-3 when they started together–and they were sure bets to be paired with each other for both legs. That is, until the Frenchman went down with a season ending injury.
Enter Zubar. He stepped in for the second leg without high expectations; in fact, he was a serious concern for New York. But he and Miazga did what they had to do, picking up another clean sheet while doing a good job of stifling United forward Alvaro Saborio.
Now it will be time to see whether he can stop Kamara, Finlay and Federico Higuain.
3. DPs aren't the way to win anymore
Here's how the former European stars that came to MLS this year as a "relaxing" end to their careers fared in this league:
Frank Lampard, NYCFC: Missing a lot of time with injuries, Lampard never made a big impact as his club saw its season end early.
Andrea Pirlo, NYCFC: Diddo, except for the injury part.
David Villa, NYCFC: Scored a lot, but couldn't get NYC into the playoffs.
Steven Gerrard, LA Galaxy: Never really figured out how to go 90 minutes as the former Liverpool legend watched the star-studded Galaxy flame out in the first round.
Kaká, Orlando City: Like Villa, he scored plenty but didn't make the playoffs.
Didier Drogba, Montreal Impact: In a class of his own.
Five out of these six either didn't make the playoffs or dropped out in the first round. Meanwhile, here are the main players for the four remaining teams:
-Bradley Wright-Phillips: Englishman acquired mid-2013. No England caps aside from five with U-20s.
-Luis Robles: American keeper who has played in 106 Red Bull games since 2012. Drafted by DC United.
-Dax McCarty: Midfielder drafted by FC Dallas in 2006. MLS lifer.
-Kei Kamara: Played in MLS almost his entire career. Born in Kenema, Sierra Leone.
-Ethan Finlay: From Minnesota, he has played professionally with only the Crew.
-Wil Trapp: Grew up in Columbus suburbs, played for Crew since 2013.
-Darlington Nagbe: Born in Liberia, gained US citizenship this year, only played for amateur USL PDL club Cleveland Internationals aside from Portland.
-Diego Valeri: Started his career with Lanùs in Argentina, has played with Portland since 2013. Three Argentina caps.
-Fanendo Adi: Formerly with clubs in Slovakia, Denmark and Ukraine, he had two caps with Nigeria U-23s.
-Fabian Castillo: Previously with Colombian club Deportivo Cali, Castillo has gotten attention from both the Colombian national team and European sides. Has played in Dallas the whole of his career outside of his home country.
-Mauro Diaz: The Argentinean began his pro career with River Plate before arriving in America in 2013.
-Kellyn Acosta: A homegrown signing, the Plano, Texas native played in both the 2011 U-17 World Cup and 2013 U-20 World Cup.
Do you see a theme here?
The majority of these guys have either spent their entire careers with their current club or have been developed mostly in the United States. No 35-year old designated players that won 300 Champions Leagues, 2,000 Premier League titles and 5 World Cups.
The way to win in MLS is not by going the David Beckham route. It's by going the Fabian Castillo route, or the Kei Kamara route. Go find your player that fits your style and make him great.
That is the blueprint for success in Major League Soccer.