It's early in the season, but the Fire will need to capitalize on playing four of the next five matches at home. Martin Tomszak takes a look at the Columbus Crew in this week's match preview.
What Are They All About? Columbus Crew SC
A point is a point is a point. We told you it wouldn’t necessarily be pretty, and it wasn’t, but the Chicago Fire managed to snag their first point of the season last Friday against Orlando. They find themselves sitting in seventh place in the Eastern Conference during what has been a head scratching two weeks of soccer around the league. Chicago is set to take on longtime rival Columbus Crew on Saturday and they could find themselves as high as third in the conference or be cemented at the bottom of the table come the end of the weekend. Story lines abound as the two sides prepare to meet and this could be the match of the weekend as far as action is concerned.
Chicago has not beaten the Crew in their last six league meetings but Columbus has lost both of their opening matches and looks to be struggling to regain their 2015 form. Veljko Paunovic is being given the time, space, and nurturing that was promised by the Front Office but this is a match that he will want to win desperately. He and the team have talked about making Toyota Park a fortress but they did not deliver against NYCFC and a loss to the Crew could result in more sagging shoulders around the ground as a harsh reality sets in. Will Chicago finally have something to celebrate or will the Crew shake the dust off of their boots after an uncharacteristic start?
Columbus Form Guide: L-L
Previous Match: A 2-1 loss in their home opener to the Philadelphia Union.
Formation: 4-2-3-1; Clark; Francis, Sauro, Parkhurst, Afful; Tchani, Trapp; Jimenez, Higuain, Finlay; Kamara
Strengths: As much as it will pain some long time Fire supporters to hear it, this is a fantastic Columbus side. Their core remains largely unchanged from the team that narrowly lost in the MLS Cup Final last season. They have high hopes for this campaign and we think their first two matches came down to a lack of sharpness and concentration more than anything else. Columbus did see the departure of ten players in the offseason but it was largely the dropping of dead weight, aging veterans, and fringe players. They took advantage of MLS’s newly implemented free agency to bolster the squad with Corey Ashe and Fire fan favorite Conor Casey and also signed two internationals in Amro Tarek (loan) and Ola Kamara (two Kamara’s is better than one). If Chicago merely rests on the Crew’s last two results they could be in for a surprise. Here are a few things to look for:
The Sleeping Giant: Kei Kamara. You knew it was coming so we’ll get it out of the way early. He scored 22 goals last season and it earned him a DP contract. Whether or not it was warranted is not for us to decide so we’ll leave the speculation to others. The bottom line is that he scored with his right foot, left foot, his head, from up close, from distance, from acute angles, taps ins, finished team goals, created solo goals, and scored any other type of goal you can think of. Four of his goals last season came against Chicago so he’ll be looking to continue that form. Is there extra pressure because of his new contract? Absolutely. However, he has the raw talent, soccer smarts and pure determination to rise up to the challenge. Sure, he’s only scored one goal despite having numerous chances in the first two matches but he’ll wake up eventually and it could very well be this Saturday.
Matt Lampson: Do you remember that part about dead weight above? Yeah. Gregg Berhalter is not the type of Coach and Sporting Director that lets talent leave his ranks and any praise and optimism about Lampson from the Fire front office and coaching staff has to be taken with a grain of salt. Lampson will more than likely be between the posts on Saturday and that will be welcome news for a Crew side that knows him well. Kei Kamara wryly smiled when the in house Crew reporter asked him about a potential Lampson match up and that should tell you all you need to know.
Lampson’s first two outings should put to rest any claims of better distribution than Johnson. Against Orlando Lampson only had 10 successful passes all of which were played centrally and within ten yards of him. He had three misplaced passes and a few errant clearances that went out of bounds. This was an improvement on his twelve unsuccessful and six successful passes against NYC. Let’s also not forget that he has given up five goals in two matches. He’s taken direct responsibility for two of them but Fire fans shouldn’t be happy with just a nice guy attitude, they’ll want to see improvement. Will this improvement come in an outing that has the added pressure of facing a side that told him he’s not good enough? Time will tell.
¡Che Boludo, tienen un Enganche!: At this point there might be some truth to the statement that Columbus signed the better Higuain. The guy has been a complete gem for the side with eight goals/nine assists, eleven goals/seven assists, and eleven goals/nine assists in ’15, ’14, ’13 respectively. His contributions are often not reflected in stats with the way he initiates play or opens space for others and he’s continued his form in 2016 being one of the bright spots in some out of character Columbus performances. His ability to dictate play in the middle of the field, his set piece delivery, and the occasional Chilena make him dangerous even in the quietest moments of a match. He and Kamara will link up throughout the match and with Johan Kappelhof and Joao Meira still learning each other’s names, Michael Harrington out with a suspension and Brandon Vincent still adjusting to being a pro, it could spell disaster for an out of sorts back line.
A Wounded Animal: No one had the Crew starting this season with two losses. Even the most die-hard Philly fans wouldn’t have expected all three points in last week’s opening of MAPFRE stadium and Columbus will be looking to regain some composure on Saturday. Tony Tchani and Will Trapp will look to anchor the midfield and allow Ethan Finlay and Hector Jimenez to unleash frustrations against Chicago right from the opening whistle. Many of their offensive struggles can be fixed by fine tuning rather than an overhaul of tactics and they will have been working on sharpness this week in training. Berhalter will expect a response from his team and this is the perfect match for his men to deliver in. Three points is a must from the Crew’s perspective with away trips to Dallas and Montreal on the horizon.
Weaknesses: Sometimes in the cruel happenings of nature, wounded animals die. As hopeful as the Crew are that their first two results are pure bad luck, in the wacky world that is MLS there is a chance that it has nothing to do with luck. Slumps after a good season are often the norm in the league and no matter what it’s chalked up to, at the end of the day Columbus is staring at a big ol’ goose egg in their points column. Let’s take a look at some of their concrete struggles this season.
Finishing Touch: For whatever reason the clinical finishing that viewers became accustomed to last season has eluded Columbus this season. Typified by such glaring misses as Finlay’s header against Philly, Jimenez’s beautiful solo run that ended with a lack luster shot right at Andre Blake in that same match or the handful of missed opportunities by Kamara against Portland. You can bet Columbus will have called an extra practice or two with the attacking players this week.
I’d Like Four Tickets Please: If the Columbus backline keeps up their form then the Fire front office should charge them for tickets on Saturday because they haven’t been much more than spectators in the last two weeks. Chicago has problems of their own in the defensive department but it isn’t due to a lack of trying. This Columbus back line is the same one that made the run to the final but you couldn’t tell from their on-field performances this season.
The 2-1 score line against Portland flattered the Crew as it could have been much worse. The first goal directly off of a Diego Valeri set piece saw six runners beat their marks in the box with the ball eventually trickling in untouched. A few saves from Steve Clark and the woodwork evaded some blushes as Dairon Asprilla, Fenando Adi, and Darlington Nagbe constantly found themselves open in space as the Crew backline looked around inquisitively. The game winner came as Adi finished off a ricocheted shot with his covering defender, Harrison Afful, nowhere to be found.
The match against Philly wasn’t any better with Chris Pontius setting aside his injury plagued past to score two goals with first touches. On both occasions he was left completely unmarked. Columbus’ defensive shape has to improve and their awareness needs a jump start or they will be looking at an 0-3 start to the season.
Character: Take it for what you will but statistics seem to indicate that Columbus might have a bit of a problem with belief. They’ve lost both of their opening two matches after giving up the first goal and the trend stretches into last season as well. The Cup Final loss came after giving away an early goal and you have to go back fifteen games to see the Crew come from behind to win (August 29, 2015 against NYCFC). If Chicago can manage to score first, something they too have failed to do this season, then history seems to indicate that Columbus might struggle in the match.
Prediction: “We’re very happy with our improvements, everybody gave their best, we’re proud of our hard work, we prepared well, we want to win all our games but today we adapted well to our situation and showed heart. We’re still growing” or something like that. Chicago 3-3 Columbus. Chicago’s goal scorer: Accam, Accam, Accam. Columbus’ goal scorers Kamara x2 and Higuain.