What Are They All About? Columbus Crew SC
It appears as if adaptability, knowledge, confidence, and resourcefulness are not always useful in acquiring three points. Sometimes you need grit, determination, the will to win, and to put it quite bluntly, ability. The Chicago Fire were lacking in all of the latter in their encounter with longtime rivals Columbus before the international break. In what was one of the worst displays of the season—reflected both statistically and in the uninspiring performance strung together by the Fire—Chicago lost 3-0 at MAPFRE Stadium in front of a rather large traveling contingent.
In the post-match press conference Veljko Paunovic diverted slightly from the usual “Congratulations to the other team, we tried really hard, I’m proud of the guys” script to show some frustration with the side. He noted the fragility of the team, an inability to score goals while constantly finding ways to concede them, a lack of competitive spirit and perhaps the most telling of the bunch, an allusion to finding players that are mentally strong in the upcoming transfer window.
With just three matches left in the regular season, there are a number of important personnel decisions to be made in the coming weeks. Players on options, loans that can be made permanent, the standing of players returning from USL stints, the looming expansion draft, two open DP spots, seemingly endless TAM and GAM, and the newly added criterion of having passion all loom large on the minds of everyone involved on the technical side of the organization.
It’s do or die time for some as Chicago looks for revenge in the second fixture of the home and home series against Columbus. Is it too late for some of the players to prove themselves useful to Nelson Rodriguez and Veljko Paunovic, or are we in for a late discovery of quality?
Columbus Form Guide: W-L-W-W-L
Previous Match: A 3-0 home win against Chicago.
Formation: 4-2-3-1; Clark; Afful, Parkhurst, Sauro, JImenez; Naess, Saeid; Finlay, Duka, Meram; Jahn
Strengths: This is the fourth meeting between these two sides this season and they haven’t played at all since their last meeting. You know this Columbus side well and if you don’t we’d like to invite you to read out previous analyses of the Crew. This week’s shortened segment will look at their last match to highlight where Columbus’ strengths were evident and where Chicago struggled.
Go After the Youngling: The Crew came out from the opening whistle with a game plan of overloading the flanks and specifically targeting Brandon Vincent on Chicago’s left side. It doesn’t get much clearer than Gregg Berhalter shouting at both Afful and Finlay to pressure Vincent on and off the ball. Their ability to interchange with Duka and create two v. one situations on that side of the pitch proved disastrous for Chicago. Afful completed 51 of his 64 pass attempts and his heat map reveals that most of his time was spent as close to the touchline as possible rather than cutting in to take on center backs as he has in the past, definitely a calculated strategy.
Vincent has looked good at times throughout the season but this encounter was not one of those instances. He appeared to second guess himself, he lacked confidence in his decision making, his positioning was off, his press was slow, and ultimately the pressure got to him. His teammates weren’t much of a help either. Unlike Afful’s ability to track back and help Parkhurst deal with Accam, Vincent’s teammates often left him hanging. On several occasions Vincent was beaten for pace or mistimed his tackle and Afful was left with the time and space to cross or shoot without any added pressure. Thiam and Accam were left ball watching and marking ghosts in some of those situations and the Columbus right back registered two shots and two crosses before his eighth minute goal.
While it remains to be seen whether Afful will return in time from Ghanaian national team duty, the inability of Chicago to work as a cohesive unit defensively should be worrisome for Paunovic. Should Afful feature he will have another field day against this Chicago side. Should he not, Ola Kamara might be seen from the start with instructions to drift wide, Duka could be moved to the flank, or 19 year old Christian Martinez might get his third start of the campaign.
The Fear of Loss: While Chicago looked okay in flashes of the first half, the second half was very telling of the squad’s current state. Columbus was able to pressure relentlessly—again, typically down the flank—and their effort paid off tremendously with two goals in the first fifteen minutes of the half. The mental toll the 3-0 score line took on Chicago’s players was all too evident. Shoulders visibly slumped for the remainder of the match, pointless persistent fouling was commonplace, heads were hung low when the ball wasn’t in play, and perhaps most telling players either took themselves out of the match with their performance or completely forgot that they were part of a team.
David Accam spent a majority of the match attempting to win it on his own despite the Columbus backline finding ways to effectively neutralize him throughout the ninety minutes. The Ghanaian completed just seven passes in the match and of those only three of them weren’t back passes necessitated by overwhelming pressure. His inability to see players in positions that are better than his own, has lack of trust that teammates can get something done, and his blatant nonchalance late in matches might have something to do with him scoring just one goal in the last seven matches. It seems that opponents have figured him out.
While Accam’s place is secure for next season many of his teammates do not have that luxury and their lack of cohesion could cost them their jobs. Questions linger about Rodrigo Ramos and Khaly Thiam’s loans, John Goossens caused some head scratching with his positioning and defensive efforts, Luis Solignac appeared to be auditioning for the Bears’ field goal kicker vacancy, and Sean Johnson might as well have been packing his backs and contacting his realtor during the match. We realize that these “Columbus” strengths revolve around Chicago but that’s all we’ve got. The Fire made an awful team look decent in the reverse fixture and the Crew will enter this match with not only confidence but desperation as this could be their last shot at the playoffs.
Weaknesses: Like we said above, this is not a good Columbus side. With the match being played just days after Chicago’s 19th anniversary party perhaps some of the passion that Paunovic called for will present itself in this encounter. It is the second to last home match for Chicago and they owe it to the fan base to get six points from those encounters. If that isn’t motivation enough there are a few other factors in play.
If I Can’t Go Then You Can’t Go: A Fire victory on Thursday would eliminate Columbus from playoff contention and there are few better ways to exhibit passion than preventing a longtime rival from achieving success. In a modern MLS era that has largely revolved around made up rivalries and media buildup the Chicago-Columbus rivalry has a heated history that should prove an apt testing ground for Paunovic questions of mentality.
The Wooden Spoon: Should Houston win their match against Seattle on Wednesday then Chicago would need a victory on Thursday night to avoid finishing in the bottom of the MLS standings for a second consecutive year. No franchise has ever achieved that feat in the league’s history. Even if Houston draws or losses their match Chicago has a four point gap to make up in the last three matches so beating Columbus is a must.
While we can talk about The Process elsewhere, it would be telling if Chicago added this unwanted record to their collection in the same week that Philadelphia joins Colorado and New York City in the playoffs.
Prediction: We don’t have the heart to tell you, please fill in your own predictions below.