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Crew face Impact in what might be final Columbus home opener

A home opener should be a time of celebration, but for Columbus Crew SC fans, Saturday's match against the Montreal Impact at Mapfre Stadium will be bittersweet.

It will be the first of what could be the final 17 regular-season home games for one of Major League Soccer's original (1996) franchises. Owner Anthony Precourt announced in October his plan to move the team to Austin, Texas, beginning in the 2019 season if a downtown stadium is not built in Columbus.

Against that backdrop, the Crew has performed admirably on the field. During the initial turmoil last fall, they reached the Eastern Conference final before falling to eventual MLS Cup winner Toronto FC.

Last Saturday, the Crew (1-0-0) got a bit of revenge when it opened the season with a 2-0 victory at Toronto.

Retooled in the offseason after trading its top two scorers, Ola Kamara and Justin Meram, the Crew got immediate payments from two newcomers. Milton Valenzuela, the 19-year-old Argentine defender, set up countryman Federico Higuain for the first goal and Gyasi Zardes, who came from the Los Angeles Galaxy for Kamara, got the second score.

"Gyasi and the other guys are doing a good job understanding how we play," Crew midfielder Artur said. "They know the other players. It's very good."

For Higuain, it was 49th goal in his career to match his 49 assists. Eighteen players in MLS history are in the 50-50 club.

Montreal (0-1-0) had a more expansive makeover than the Crew with 12 new players and a new coach, Remi Garde, after finishing ninth in the Eastern Conference with 39 points last season.

The Impact opened this season with a 2-1 loss at the Vancouver Whitecaps, falling behind by two goals until Italian striker Matteo Mancosu scored in the 81st minute.

"He was rewarded for his efforts," Garde said. "Matteo is a very generous player that fights for the team. It's an attitude I really love. I hope the scoring will continue now that he's opened his account."

Seven of the 18 players on the lineup card and four of 11 starters were new to the team.

"We came out strong for the second half," Garde said. "It would have been great to score at that moment. It's during these spells of possession that we need to take advantage."

Montreal right now is the epitome of a work in progress but does have Argentine midfielder Ignacio Piatti, who has scored 17 goals in each of the past two seasons.

"Last game, they played very compact for the most part, not very much space between the lines, and they were still able to find space on the counterattack," Crew coach Gregg Berhalter said.

Montreal this week signed French center back Rod Fanni to a contract through June 30 with an option for the remainder of the season. He is awaiting his international transfer certificate and might not be available for Saturday's match.

The Impact lost both games to the Crew last season and have not defeated Columbus since a 2-0 win on April 9, 2016, in Montreal.

Updated March 8, 2018

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