By DAN KARELL
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Most observers would agree that the Columbus Crew were only one piece away from joining MLS’ elite teams.
That missing piece was a goal-scoring forward, which is why the club signed Kei Kamara late last year. Early on this season, that move has paid dividends, as Kamara has combined with the Crew’s three attacking midfielders behind him – Ethan Finlay, Federico Higuain, and Justin Meram – to form one of the league’s most feared quartets.
On Saturday, the Crew broke out of a short-lived slump to score three goals on Western Conference power club, the Seattle Sounders. Although three goals were scored, the Crew created multiple-more gilt-edged chances, only to squander those opportunities.
But the three goals were enough to defeat the Sounders, 3-2, and force head coach Sigi Schmid re-think his choice of tactics.
“We gave them too much space. I might have gotten the tactics wrong a little bit and that’s on me,” Schmid said. “That’s something I’ve already thought about if we run into them again, how we play them, maybe a little differently. We made a decision to play one way and that was maybe not the right decision. But on the same token, sometimes we were in position but we were just a step slow.”
As Schmid mentioned, the midfield trio of Meram, Higuain, and Finlay in addition to Kamara had plenty of space to operate. In fact, for most of the game, at any time, it seemed like at least one of the four was unmarked, finding space between the line of four Sounders midfielders and line of four Sounders defenders.
Former Crew captain Chad Marshall was beaten twice in one-on-one situations, both on goals from Kamara, and he admitted what a nightmare it was for the Sounders to keep an eye on all of the Crew attackers.
“They’re good players and they interchange really well,” Marshall said. “It’s what makes it difficult to mark them. Every one of those guys can play all four of those positions so they pop up in different spots and that’s what makes them dangerous.
“They come off the back line and make it difficult for the defenders, you don’t know whether to go with them or stay.”
The interchangeability of the forwards has led to plenty of success in the stat sheet through nine game this season. Kamara is tied for the league lead in goals scored with seven and the four players have combined to score 14 of the Crew’s 15 goals this season. And Finlay is tied for the league lead in assists with five while the other three have recorded a combined five assists.
It’s been clear though that even beyond his contributions to the stat sheet, Kamara’s presence in the lineup has been the shot in the arm that the Crew needed after trying out Adam Bedell, Aaron Schoenfeld, and Jairo Arrieta in the forward position last season.
“Last year we had a lot of forwards and they did a nice job,” Finlay commented, “but now we have a guy who’s a prolific goalscorer. He’s incredible with his head and he finds himself in great spots. The one great thing about our team is our front four, on any night, someone’s going to be the hero. Tonight (Kei) was, and he was all over the field defensively and offensively. And you saw Pipa step up tonight as well. He’s been quiet throughout the season and tonight he had a little bit of a coming-out party. That’s great for him and it’s great for his confidence.
“Justin (Meram) and I were just talking about it, (usually) one guy has a nice game and a couple of other guys have a decent game. Tonight, we had two guys that had two superstar games. That’s what we need from them and we’re really happy about that.”
Crew head coach Gregg Berhalter may have put it best when asked to compare the Crew’s front four to the Sounders’ Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey, both Designated Players and league stars who have and will continue to torment MLS defenses.
Berhalter noted how all four of the Crew players have different skill sets, from the “blazing speed” of Finlay to the technical ability on the ball of Meram when dribbling at the opponent’s goal of, to the vision, tempo, and passing of Higuain, and the many attributes of Kamara, including his anticipation, finishing touch, and hold up play.
Yet when the four play together, all of their talents complement each other and lead to success for the team.
“I keep saying that these guys, as they play together more, they’re going to be dangerous, because they combine, they look for each other, and they’re dynamic,” Berhalter said. “If you take those four and then some of the guys that have played that position and look at their qualities, they’re so contrasting.
“But when you add it together, it makes almost a perfect package.”