Travelling to Columbus for the second match in four days, the Fire will face an opponent that will certainly be a challenger for one of the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. Despite cleaning house and releasing many of their most reliable veteran players after last season, Columbus is still currently eight points ahead of the Fire in the standings. A look at their line up might leaving you wondering how that's possible.
Robert Warzycha has a few holdovers remaining from the Schelotto era. Goalkeeper William Hesmer is one of them along with former MLS defender of the year Chad Marshall. The rest of the back line aren't household names but they've managed to get the job done reasonably well. Journeyman Julius James pairs with Marshall at center back while Sebastian Miranda and Josh Gardner man the right and left sides respectively.
In midfield, the Crew are without Robbie Rogers due to Gold Cup duty. The remaining players won't knock your socks off either but they've managed to get results. Emmanuel Ekpo and Eddie Gaven, two more holdover "regular" players of season's past are the likely choice on the outside while lesser known Kevin Burns and Rich Balchan are the central pairing. Balchan has also started at right back with Gardner moving forward but has shown more initiative in the attack despite Gardner's goal on Wednesday against RSL.
Up top Jeff Cunningham continues to chase Jamie Moreno for the MLS all-time goal scoring crown and could have scored his first goal of the season mid-week if strike partner (and DP) Andres Mendoza didn't step up and selfishly take a spot kick away from him. The move caused a bit if a stir in C-Bus with Warzycha sounding like he was nearing the end of his rope with Mendoza and fans booing him off the pitch. Mendoza also "shushed" the crowd upon leaving the match and somehow broke his wrist during the RSL game. If Mendoza doesn't start Jason Meram, who drew the penalty that led to the PK controversy will get the call.
Frank Klopas hinted at resting starters at some point in this two game stretch but a vital need for points should come before many wholesale line up changes. The back line should remain a constant with two consecutive clean sheets so I don't expect changes there.
Passing and movement from attacking players in Thursday's game was bad to say the least but the subs weren't much better than the starters. Baggio Husidic is available if Klopas chooses but Daniel Paladini wasn't the problem against KC. Patrick Nyarko came off the bench for the second consecutive match but he wasn't impressive either. It's possible that Klopas could re-unite the Uruguayan connection up top in hopes of reigniting some of their early season success.
CHICAGO FIRE -- OUT: MF Mike Banner (L Achilles tendinitis); DF Steven Kinney (R Achilles repair); DOUBTFUL: MF Marko Maric (L deltoid ligament sprain); DF Josip Mikulic (L clavicle fracture)
COLUMBUS CREW -- OUT: DF Josh Williams (R hip labral tear); MF Danny O'Rourke (L knee surgery); MF Dilly Duka (R ankle sprain); MF Leandro Griffit (abdominal strain); DF Shaun Francis (L hamstring strain); DOUBTFUL: FW Tommy Heinemann (L hamstring strain); FW Emilio Renteria (L quad strain); FW Santiago Prim (R ankle sprain); FW Bernardo Anor (L ankle sprain); QUESTIONABLE: MF Cole Grossman (concussion)
Columbus is a difficult place to play. They've made Crew Stadium a hard place to pick up points despite relatively small crowds and the loss of key players. Columbus is 4-0-3 at home this season continuing the succesful home effort over the last several seasons.
The Crew haven't exactly looked good this season but their ability to continually grind out results at home keeps them in the mix. Maybe the Fire can draw some inspiration from the approximately 400 travelling fans that will be in attendance. I doubt it.
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