Defence was the hot topic for Montreal Impact this week and it was only fitting with the Columbus Crew in town.
The Crew scored nine goals in three games — a pair of wins and a loss — during a recently completed three-game homestand. Now they face an Impact team that is tied with Houston with an MLS-worst 45 goals conceded this season.
The last-place Impact (4-15-5) face the fourth-place Crew (8-8-9) at Saputo Stadium on Saturday night looking to improve their overall defensive play, not just the back line anchored by veteran Matteo Ferrari.
The Impact were feeling good about last week, which started with a 1-0 win at home over Chicago to end a seven-game losing run and a 3-2 victory in El Salvador in CONCACAF Champions League play.
But it ended with a 4-2 defeat on the road to the New York Red Bulls that had coach Frank Klopas stressing defence at practice this week.
"We've got to keep working without the ball," said Klopas, whose team left gaping holes for the Red Bulls attack once it relinquished the lead. "The more compact we are defensively, it will make things more difficult for other teams.
"That's why, when we fell behind (to New York), it didn't play to our strengths."
Red Bulls' star Thierry Henry's brilliance was the main cause for that, as he erased the 1-0 lead Dilly Duka produced with his first goal for Montreal with a prescient header. Henry calmly poked in another and MLS scoring leader Bradley Wright-Phillips added two more around Andres Romero's late goal.
Fatigue was a factor with the Impact playing three times in eight days, but defensive lapses have been a problem all season for Montreal.
Klopas said when he was named coach last winter that the aim was to allow 10 fewer goals than the 49 conceded in 2013. That objective won't be met, and there are 10 games left in the regular season.
And now they face Columbus, which has gifted nine-goal scorer Federico Higuain masterminding an attack that gets goals from many sources, including Ethan Finlay (six goals) and Justin Meram (five). There is also six-foot-seven forward Adam Bedell to contend with.
"Players like Henry and Higuain, you can't stop them, you can just try to control them," said Impact captain Patrice Bernier. "You just need to be aware of them on the field and don't let them hurt you."
'Haven't got the results'
The Impact are 1-5-1 against the Crew, including a 2-1 loss in Columbus in July, in three MLS seasons. The teams are 1-1-1 in Montreal.
The Impact hope their game is picking up as the end of the season nears. New designed player Ignacio (Nacho) Piatti was promising in his first week with the club, and 38-year-old striker Marco Di Vaio is finding his range with three goals in his last three games.
With Andres Romeo, who has scored in consecutive games, having a solid season at midfield, the Impact see themselves as a better team than their record shows.
"I still believe we have a really good team, we just haven't got the results this year," said defender Heath Pearce. "And with 10 games remaining in the season, we want to go on a run and put up a significant amount of points."
Crew defender Eric Gehrig thinks so, too.
"We're not going to look at the points they have or the stats they have," Gehrig told his team's website. "We're going to look at what they have on the field. On their best day, they're a very good team, one of the best teams in the League."
'More attacking options'
While the Impact have scored only 25 goals in 24 games, second lowest ahead of Chivas USA's 21, they feel that Piatti's arrival gives them a dynamic offence.
"We have more attacking options, with more players who are dangerous around the goal," said Di Vaio. "The hardest part is to try to control the game now.
"If we can stop the other team from scoring, we know now that we can find the goals."
The Impact may have Pearce and fullback Eric Miller back from injury to give them extra options at the back. They also signed Nigerian centreback Gege Soriola this week.
Romero is to play his 50th game for Montreal.
The Crew lost a top player last week when Costa Rican international defender Giancarlo Gonzalez was sold to Palermo of Italy's Serie-A.