What Are They All About? Columbus Crew SC
It is now mathematically official. With the Chicago Fire’s midweek loss to Seattle and DC United’s win over Columbus, the Fire cannot possibly make the playoffs. With four matches to spare the feat comes later in the season than last year but that is not much of a consolation. Many fans have come to expect a lack of November soccer in Chicago as this is the sixth time in seven years that the Fire has missed out on the post season. Excuses are plentiful but have begun to fall on deaf ears and the pain of the experience has subsided to a slight numbness due to its frequency.
The final nail in the coffin came off of a Chad Marshall header on a play that was a microcosm of the season: apathy, confusion, lack of skill, and panache for inventing new ways to lose. The 71/29 first half possession stat in favor of the Sounders was slightly misleading as Chicago showed flashes of decent play on the counter, but in the end it was not enough. The fan base was fed lines about effort, playing to the best of the team’s ability, the difficulty of the opponent, and the “process” by a head coach who looked as if he had stopped believing the words in front of him months ago.
The true nature of the situation was visible to all who glanced at the MLS standings following the loss. Chicago returned to the cellar of the league and looks likely to stay there for the remainder of the season, the first team to ever repeat that honor in back to back seasons. The league, however, has no room for pity and the remainder of the matches must be played. Chicago’s parade through the mud continues against Columbus on Saturday.
Columbus has not fared much better than Chicago this season and currently sits in 9th of the East, just five points ahead of Chicago. While they aren’t officially out of the playoff picture, they need to win all four of their remaining matches and hope that DC and New England both slip up. Saturday’s match is the first of a home and home series between these historic rivals and Columbus will fancy their chances to take six points against a miserable Chicago side. Should Columbus doom Chicago to the bottom of the table it would also be the 9th time that Columbus has finished above Chicago in the rivalry’s history. There are a lot of plot lines coming together in this one.
Columbus Form Guide: L-W-W-L-L
Previous Match: A 3-0 away loss to DC United.
Formation: 4-2-3-1; Clark; Ashe, Naess, Parkhurst, Afful; Saeid, Trapp; Meram, Tchani, Finlay; Kamara
Strengths: We have seen this Columbus side on two previous occasions this season, a scoreless draw at Toyota Park in March and a 2-1 Chicago Open Cup victory in June. Gregg Berhalter’s side is not one that is full of surprises, you’ll know exactly what you’re getting. He hasn’t deviated from his 4-2-3-1 formation, his tactics, or his personnel this season and it has led to some positives in their play.
“I’ll take Who’s that Namesake for 200”: Earlier this season we discussed the Kei Kamara trade to New England and decided to wait until later to decide who won out on the deal. Well, four and a half months later it appears as if Columbus and their newer, younger and better Kamara are having the last laugh. Ola Kamara arrived in February so it isn’t as if his acquisition resulted from the Kei sale but his quick rise to success has been a real treat to watch.
Ola has scored 15 goals and added 2 assists in his 23 appearances this season. Ten of those goals came in his first eleven matches as an emphatic answer to the question of filling Kei’s shoes. Many strikers would have issues adjusting to a new league, struggle with being the only healthy striker in a line up, and fail to instantly fit into a new tactical system - facts that make the Norwegian’s quick adaptation all the more impressive. We know that Columbus’ strategy largely revolves around creation from the flanks and the dynamic shifting of midfielders in open play. Ola’s singular job is to put the ball in the net and he’s pretty good at it. Whether chasing down through balls, getting on the end of crosses, or striking from distance, the kid is good.
The recent matches against Orlando and New England highlight his talent. A typical through ball from Kamara to Ethan Finlay resulted in an assist during the opening minutes away to Orlando and the exact reverse of that play resulted in an Ola goal at the close of the first half. Second half stoppage time saw the duo link up yet again as a through ball to Ola sent him off to the races before he expertly chipped Bendik for his second of the match. The game against New England showed that he is strong in the box with his first emphatic finish and clinical from the spot with his second goal on a PK. Chicago cannot afford to play a high back line in this one and perhaps the younger legs of Kappelhoff and Campbell should be utilized at center back.
Midfield Dynamism: As alluded to above, Kamara’s success comes largely from the midfield’s ability to create. The ability of Justin Meram, Tony Tchani, and Finlay to provide service to Kamara is the strongest aspect of this Columbus side. There is a real chemistry among the front four that makes them unstoppable on a good day. They can punish outside backs along the touchline put also have enough soccer sense to cut inside or hold up the ball in anticipation of overlapping runs. When you add the fact that Harrison Afful and Corey Ashe act like midfielders that happen to be listed as outside backs the danger from the flanks only intensifies the midfield threat presented by Columbus.
The creativity and freedom exhibited by the front four seems to stem from the comfort of knowing that Will Trapp and Mohammed Saeid/Nicolai Naess have perfected their holding midfield roles. The intelligence of the 23 year old particularly sticks out. Trapp has become an expert in plugging gaps presented by the further advanced midfielders and his ability to win back the ball and quickly distribute has been a main facet in Columbus’ ability to counter. An interesting matchup between him and Polster is on the cards for this weekend.
Weaknesses: Similarly to the above column, Columbus’ straightforward style of play has also been the source of their downfall at times.
If Kamara Doesn’t Score, Who Will?: For as good as the Norwegian has been, the singular dimension of Columbus’ attack has been frustrating. If Kamara is having an off day or is effectively neutralized by a hounding center back, then the Crew struggle. Even when the likes of Finlay and Meram score it is because of interplay with Kamara or by utilizing space created by the forward.
Chicago isn’t a shining example of this either, but aside from Kamara there are only three players on the Columbus roster that have scored more than two goals on the season. One of those players is Federico Higuain who is likely to miss this match through injury. Adam Jahn and Connor Casey are the only other current forwards on the roster that have appeared for the Crew this season, so the options on the bench aren’t extensive either. It’s simple on paper but if Kamara is stifled then Columbus is stifled. DC United utilized Rob Vincent as the holding mid in a 4-1-4-1 and he essentially served as a third center back that followed Kamara around the entire match. Perhaps Cocis was provided with a card board cut out of Kamara to carry around this week.
“But I Just Ran a Lot the Other Way…”: Columbus provides yet another example of the danger associated with using two advancing outside backs in a back four. Afful and Ashe look great going forward. They have a dangerous cross and a testing shot, but the match against DC highlights glaring mistakes associated with that strategy. We’ve discussed Patrick Nyarko and Lloyd Sam’s partnership at length in our DC previews and the duo absolutely tore Ashe and Afful apart in their midweek matchup.
An initial scare in the early minutes came off of a Sam cross to Patrick Mullins as the winger was provided ample time on the ball due to Ashe failing to track back. By the time Naess slid over to cover, Sam was already deep into the final third. It was an early sign of things to come. There were several instances where Afful and Ashe looked more interested in providing an outlet for the counter than in marking DC wingers: an Acosta shout for a penalty came off of a play where Columbus’ wingbacks were ten yards away from any DC player and literally had their shoulder turned the wrong way; DC’s first goal came from an interchange between Acosta and an onrushing Sam, Ashe was late in recovering as his mark scored; the second goal sequence started on the left wing by Nyarko and finished by Lamar Neagle in acres of space on the right wing; the final goal came from a Neagle run down the flank and a tidy cutback to Saborio, again no marking on Neagle. This match is begging for Ramos and Vincent as outside backs to help Accam and Goossens punish Columbus’ own outside backs.
Prediction: We have no idea what will happen in this match, absolutely no clue. We know that both teams desperately need to win and that the match could turn brutal. A mass of traveling fans from Chicago on buses provided by the front office and a club generated tifo by Columbus further reveal the weight of the encounter. These next two matches will make or break Columbus’ season and could very well lead to the termination of some of Chicago’s staff and a decision to decline options on players.
In lieu of a score prediction we will provide you with an interesting tidbit regarding Chicago’s line up. Reports indicate that Drew Conner, Patrick Doody, and Alex Morrell did not travel to Seattle midweek, nor will they fly to Columbus. With Colin Fernandez heading to Lima for camp with the Peruvian U-20 team, the calls from both fans and pundits to play the kids will clearly go unanswered for another week.
While this particular instance is disappointing given that Chicago’s season is over, it also points to a worrying future. We understand Paunovic and Nelson Rodriguez are attempting to avoid the wooden spoon but it appears as if they do not trust the youth and/or they do not believe they are skilled enough. While we can save an analysis of other MLS teams relying heavily on a bottom- up structure for their clubs for another time, it is becoming evident that the youth movement alluded to by Rodriguez’s post-Paunovic hire comments will not come to fruition.
That in itself is not terrible as there are plenty of other models that have proven successful in the league. However, given the transfer activity of the last two windows—acquiring out of contract players, loanees, miniscule transfer fees, and the peculiar Alejandro Bedoya situation—the election to leave almost 500k of the salary cap unused, and Rodriguez’s comments that one player does not make or break a team, it appears as if the Fire are not going to utilize a top down model either. Their dumpster diving and thrift shopping mentality is more reminiscent of a vegan, bike-riding Logan Square resident than it is of an MLS club and it will continue to affect their position in the league going forward.
The next window will be telling but the Fire also need to find out if their current crop of youngster can play at the MLS level. If the passionate fan base will not be rewarded with a difference maker while not seeing the full potential of Fernandez, Conner, or Calistri it will continue to seem as if mediocrity is the ceiling for Chicago.