What Are They All About? Columbus Crew SC Open Cup
After a roller coaster of emotions, the Chicago Fire ultimately fell 4-3 against the Philadelphia Union in their last league outing. Veljko Paunovic’s calls for a renewal of energy and attitude were somewhat answered by the Fire players in their first multi-goals match since the season opener but they fell short in the end. Chicago is three matches from the halfway mark of the season and they sit firmly rooted to the bottom of the Eastern Conference, nine points off of the final playoff spot. Hope and optimism are once again becoming scarce commodities for Fire supporters but Chicago’s next fixture is one that can invigorate those feelings on command.
The Fire will take on Columbus Crew SC at Toyota Park on Tuesday in the Lamar Hunt U.S Open Cup round of sixteen. It will be the sixth meeting between the two sides in the competition and Chicago has come out on top in the five previous contests. Neither side is performing at the level that they would like heading into the match and the competition can serve as a chance of redemption for the struggling sides. Chicago’s connection to the tournament has been well documented in previous previews and needs no further clarification. By all accounts, the coaching staff, the players, and the Front Office have prioritized lifting the cup for an historic fifth time in the Club’s history. However, talk is cheap and after a lackluster performance against NASL’s Indy Eleven in the last round questions abound heading into Tuesday’s match. Will it be a beleaguered and injury plagued Chicago side that lives to fight another day, or will it be the beleaguered and injury plagued yellow team from Ohio that trudges on?
Columbus Form Guide (All Competitions): D-D-W-L-W
Previous Match: A 1-1 home draw against New York Red Bulls.
Formation: 4-2-3-1; Clark; Afful, Parkhurst, Wahl, Ashe; Trapp, Tchani; Finlay, Saeid, Meram; Kamara
Strengths: You would think that it would be difficult to write a strengths section for a team that sits just one place above the Fire but this Columbus side still has a lot of the talent that took them to the MLS Cup Final last season. Yes, they no longer have their leading goal scorer from that run but many would argue that shipping Kei Kamara to New England has reinvigorated the team. Stories have come out about a tense situation in the locker room prior to his departure and recent displays from the Columbus team have reflected a newfound freedom in play. Let’s take a look at what is going well for them.
Kamara: No, not Kei. Columbus brought in Norwegian international Ola Kamara during the offseason and he has turned out to be another positive line on Gregg Berhalter’s Technical Director Resume. The forward has notched five goals in nine MLS appearances for Columbus and has been a great response to the questions posed in the wake of Kei’s transfer. For a side that is heavily reliant on their wingers providing service to a target striker Berhalter and company have been relieved to see Ola transition so smoothly. Kamara opened his Columbus account against RSL as he got on the end of a Justin Meram pass before notching two more to become the first Crew player to score a hat trick in twelve years (yes that means Kei didn’t achieve the feat). He’s quick, strong on the ball, puts himself in dangerous positions and he is a clinical finisher. He could prove to be a handful for a Chicago center back defense that has allowed 6 goals in their last two matches.
Touchline Dominance: We wouldn’t be doing our job properly if we avoided talking about the outside backs and the wingers in Columbus’ 4-2-3-1. Berhalter has set his team up to punish opposition on the counter, plain and simple. Columbus has had an edge in possession in four out of their last five matches (50/50 in the fifth) but they are most dangerous in transition.
We can criticize their ability to defend later but Harrison Afful, Corey Ashe, Hector Jimenez and Waylon Francis are outside backs that are small, agile, quick and love to get forward. Jimenez hasn’t notched a goal or an assist yet but the other three have the statistical credentials to back up their attacking prowess. Jimenez has started as both a right back and a right winger this season and he could prove to be dangerous no matter where he features. Afful and Ashe have been the preferred starters and have tallied three assists on the season. Whatever combination is utilized at the back on Tuesday, the Fire should be well aware of the threat posed by Columbus if Chicago commits numbers forward.
That threat is only compounded when you realize that Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram have three goals and ten assists between them. They were largely responsible for Columbus’ success in the playoffs last season and the Crew’s place in the standings has no bearing on the pair’s raw talent. For example, even in the seemingly drab 0-0 draw against Montreal the two were quite active combining for 32 successful passes while only failing to complete six of their attempts. Again, their pass attempts aren’t as plentiful as other wingers in the league but they certainly have one of the highest completion rates of any opponent we’ve previewed this season. In the match against RSL the pair combined for 36 successful passes while only failing on eight attempts. Rounding out their last five matches was the encounter with Philadelphia. While they lost that match they combined for 40 successful passes and fourteen unsuccessful distributions.
All three of Finlay and Meram’s assists over the last five matches have been services to Ola Kamara and their connection with the Norwegian seems to be growing with each passing match. Paunovic will have to give his tactics some serious thought going into the fixture knowing that his charges will essentially be dealing with four players on the flanks.
Weaknesses: Columbus has averaged just 1.07 points per game this season. They’re just about halfway through their season and last year’s heights seem beyond unattainable which means that our weaknesses section should be pretty straight forward.
Mala Leche, un Enganche Desaparecido: Prior to his on field scuffle with Kei Kamara Columbus’ other DP, Federico Higuain, was struggling to find his form from last season. After that confrontation he seemed to perk up a bit but has managed just three goals and three assists in thirteen appearances this season. Their quintessential number 10 will be missing entirely on Tuesday as he recovers from sports hernia surgery. Finding a replacement has been anything but simple for Berhalter. Emil Larsen and Mohammed Seid have both been given run-outs in that position in Higuain’s absences but neither has notched a goal or an assist in that time. What’s worse is that they don’t seem to be on the same page with the wingers, a big problem given Columbus’ tactics.
“Insert Witty Phrase About MLS Centerbacks”: Time and time again we find ourselves discussing the league’s ineptitude at the back. We thought the Fire finally had the answer in Johan Kappelhof and Jonathan Campbell but allowing six goals in two matches including own goals means that even they have to be questioned, but perhaps not as much as Tyson Wahl and Michael Parkhurst. For those readers who assumed that the pair had retired, they haven’t. At least not physically…
The pair has probably been having nightmares about David Accam leading up to Tuesday’s fixture and Berhalter may as well have ran by the pair in practice wearing the Ghanaian’s jersey so that they can get used to the sight. Some absolutely mindboggling defensive performances have become the norm for the pair in recent matches. Neither one of them felt like picking up Bradely Wright Phillips in the last match against New York (Afful was also busy recovering from his attacking duties) as the prolific center-forward lightly jogged down the middle of the pitch to bury a header into the back of the net. In the goalless draw against Montreal, the Impact managed eight shots against the Crew and you guessed it, they were all from central locations. Apparently marking Didier Drogba wasn’t a priority in that match.
The most appropriate image for this section came a few weeks ago against Philadelphia where an absolutely gassed Michael Parkhurst was slouched over trying to catch his breath as the Union’s Fabian Herbers ran off celebrating the game winner. Columbus allowed three goals in that match and their issues were all too visible as they struggled to track back on the wings and the central defenders were outplayed by a quick and youthful Philadelphia side. Paunovic will be reviewing that match with the Fire players for sure.
Who Needs Road Wins?: Chicago hasn’t fared well on the road by any stretch of the imagination but Columbus hasn’t won on the road in this campaign either. They have lost four and drawn three on their travels while failing to impress with creativity or attacking forays outside of the confines of MAPFRE Stadium. Given their failures against Chicago in this competition the task of salvaging their season in Bridgeview seems even more difficult.
Prediction: Discussions of progress and patience will mean nothing if Chicago fails to advance on Tuesday. Once again we will continue the trend of not offering a score prediction for the Open Cup. Anything short of lifting the trophy will be deemed a failure. With the MLS season pretty much over at this early stage, the Open Cup is all that the Fire has left and they should play like it against Columbus.