Columbus Crew SC is looking to offensive sparkplugs Kei Kamara, Frederico Higuain and Ethan Finlay to help save their season against the surging Montreal Impact.
Only the New York Red Bulls, with 62, scored more goals than Columbus (58) during the MLS regular season. But the Impact held Crew SC to just three shots on target in a 2-1 win in the opening leg of their Eastern Conference semifinal last Sunday at Saputo Stadium.
Asked if there is more to come offensively in Sunday's return leg at Mapfre Stadium, Columbus captain Michael Parkhurst replied: "I surely hope so. If not we're in trouble."
"We watched the tape and we broke it down and we felt like there were just little things here and there that we were just off on. We feel like we can definitely be better. And that's a good thing. If we felt like we put in a perfect performance and lost 2-1, we wouldn't be as confident today. But we felt like we left some plays on the table and we need to execute better."
Kamara, Higuain and Finlay combined to score 42 of Columbus' goals this season. But the trio managed just two shots on target in Montreal. Helped by an Impact defensive breakdown, Higuain scored on his lone shot but the rest of the offence was stymied.
Kamara had 22 goals this season but has not scored since Sept. 26
"We were just a couple of passes off," said Gregg Berhalter, Columbus' head coach and sporting director. "A little bit of that sharpness wasn't there, that precision wasn't there. At home we'd like to see a better production."
There is no room for error. A win or tie sends the Impact to the Eastern final against either the Red Bulls or D.C. United.
For Montreal, it's a chance to make this a year to remember, having already finished runner-up in the CONCACAF Champions League in April. The Impact have been firing on all cylinders since the addition of veteran striker Didier Drogba and installation of Mauro Biello as interim coach.
"It's pretty big," Biello said of Sunday's game. "Obviously the Champions League was a huge success, but we're in the MLS playoffs here and we want to go as far as we can. Columbus is in front of us and we need to do everything we can to get through. Then we're one step away from the final."
The opening game was a chippy affair with five yellow cards, including a caution for Drogba for hanging onto Columbus 'keeper Steve Clark's leg in a bizarre challenge.
The semifinal is a two-game aggregate affair with away goals counting double in event of a tie. So a 1-0 or 2-0 victory would see Crew SC advance while a 2-1 Columbus win would send the match to extra time and potentially a penalty shootout.
Beyond that, Columbus would have to defeat Montreal by a two-goal margin to advance.
"The mood's positive. We're confident," said Parkhurst, whose giveaway led to the winning Montreal goal last time out. "We said that the main goal of the first game was to put ourselves in a position to advance. And we were unable to do that last year. So that was our focus this year and we did that.
"Of course we're disappointed with the performance, with the loss, I thought at least a draw was there for the taking. But 2-1 is a result we can work with. We know it's going to be anything but easy. It's going to be extremely difficult. Montreal's played us tough three times this year."
In 2014, Columbus lost 4-2 at home to the Revolution in the opening leg of the conference semifinal before going down 3-1 in New England.
Montreal, which finished third in the East, is 3-0-0 against the second-place Crew SC this season, including its first ever win in Columbus. The Impact had lost their five previous visits to Ohio.
Berhalter doesn't put much stock in the regular-season meetings. Montreal had yet to unleash Drogba. And Columbus had yet to bolster its defence with Argentine Gaston Sauro and Ghanaian Harrison Afful.
The Impact arrive on a roll, having won five straight including a 3-0 playoff victory over Toronto FC. Columbus has been more hit and miss, going 2-3-0.
Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press