The season is finally here. After the match preview, have a look at the Fire Confidential crew's season predictions.
What Are They All About? Columbus Crew SC
It's finally here! After going undefeated in preseason, the Chicago Fire will face their first real challenge of 2017 as they take on Columbus Crew SC on Saturday at 1 p.m. CT (CSN Chicago). Eager anticipation, unfiltered hope, devastating fear, and joyous uncertainty swirl around in the stomachs of supporters and pundits while the players, coaches, and front office walk with confidence and heads held high. Many outlets have listed Nelson Rodriguez and Chicago as winners of the offseason, impressively improving the look of the team on paper. The additions of Dax McCarty, Juninho, and Nemanja Nikolic have many onlookers anticipating an easy stroll through opening day. However, that swagger could soon be deflated by reality. Chicago has not won an opening match since their 2009 3-1 win over FC Dallas, in fact they’ve managed just one point from openers in the seven seasons since then (a 1-1 draw against expansion side Montreal Impact). The Fire have found themselves in this position of expectation before, but the Process has seemingly promised a different outcome this time.
Standing in their way is a Columbus side that has quite the chip on its shoulder. The front office, under the tutelage of Dave Greely and Gregg Berhalter, has seen both the highs and lows offered by MLS over the course of the last two seasons. Finishing second in the East in 2015, Columbus made it all the way to the MLS Cup Final where they fell just short of the title, losing to Portland. Failures to strengthen in the offseason and the bizarre fiasco surrounding Kei Kamara’s departure not only saw them finish 9th in the East last season, but they struggled with a sense of identity and lacked leadership throughout the campaign. Columbus became just the sixth team in league history to miss the playoffs the year after featuring in a final and they will be desperately hoping to wipe that stat from their memory on Saturday.
Only one of these two teams will get to crawl out of the gutter on opening day (unless they both slip and roll around in the mud together), will it be Chicago or Columbus? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Formation: 4-2-3-1: Zack Steffen; Afful, Naess, Mensah, Raitala; Artur, Trapp; Finlay, Higuain, Meram; Kamara
Strengths: This Columbus side is coming off of its own successful preseason having lifted the much-coveted Carolina Challenge Cup (a trophy Chicago is all too familiar with) after beating defending MLS champions Seattle Sounders in the final. All joking aside, that match gave us a glimpse into a very much refreshed Crew side looking for a strong start to the season. Let’s see where they could succeed on Saturday.
New Faces: An aging and often unmotivated Crew roster was largely gutted in the offseason. Berhalter declined options on Corey Ashe, Steve Clark, Cedrick Mabwati, traded Michael Parkhurst to Atlanta, left Mohammed Saeid unprotected in the expansion draft to be picked up by Minnesota, and wished Tyson Wahl well in his retirement. Those regulars logged over 11,000 minutes for Columbus last year but were deemed surplus given the horrendous season they had. Wholesale changes were made all over the pitch.
A backline with the second highest goals against average in the league was revamped with the additions of Finnish international left back Jukka Raitala (appearing for the likes of Aalborg, Osasuna, Heerenveen, and Hoffenheim), and Ghanaian international center back Jonathan Mensah (Udinese, Granada, Evian, and Anzhi). Mensah’s World Cup pedigree speaks for itself and both he and Harrison Afful recently returned from the African Cup of Nations where they lost out to eventual winners Cameroon in the semi-final. In addition to those two, Berhalter also added Ghanaian center back Lalas Abubakar with the fifth overall pick in the Super Draft. Although he will likely play second fiddle to last season’s summer window addition Nicolai Naess, he will certainly provide stiff competition in training and he did earn a couple of starts next to Mensah in preseason. At 22 and 26 respectively, that budding partnership could point to stability at the back for years to come.
Tactical Flexibility in Midfield: In addition to the defensive rebuild, Berhalter also secured some much-needed depth in the center of midfield. There were times last season where Tony Tchani and Will Trapp looked absolutely lost on the field. A partnership that had shown potential in 2015 and was given an opportunity to flourish last season fell flat on its face. In order to push for starting spots as well as add some tactical options Columbus secured the signature of Ghanaian (yes, there seems to be a theme here) Mohammed Abu from Stromsgodset in Norway and also added Artur on loan from Sao Paulo.
Abu is a deep lying midfielder that has an impeccable long ball. Although he came up through the Man City Academy, his career consisted entirely of loan appearances until he made a permanent move to Stromsgodset. His time in Norway highlights his ability to break up play and look up immediately for a key diagonal pass. While he will be given a more traditional defensive midfield role at Columbus, look for him to try to rekindle the partnership he had with Ola Kamara in Norway and to put balls in over the top for Finlay and Meram.
Artur on the other hand fulfills the role of the quintessential box to box midfielder. There is little room for the youngster to feature regularly in Sao Paulo’s stacked midfield, but he looked impressive in his four league appearances last season (partaking in an interchange with Fire legend Gilberto that was truly worthy of the “joga bonito” label). A loan seems to be the best option for both parties involved and we wouldn’t be surprised to see this turn into a situation like the successful Lucaino Acosta loan from Boca to DC last year. At times Artur could be seen defending in his own box, at other times he drove through the heart of the oppositions defense to cause trouble in the final third, and the pure energy coming from the twenty year old is a beauty to behold no matter where he is on the pitch. We feel that he can be used to partner Abu/Tchani/Trapp or he could slot into the number ten slot if Higuain is injured, tired, or arguing with teammates.
Care Free: While opening day could be full of pressure for both sides (especially the FOs and Coaching staffs), there is also a sense of freedom that could flow from the new signings on the pitch. While chemistry and understanding may be worries, the clean slate of the new season should energize this Crew side.
Weaknesses: A massive overhaul may provide opportunities for success but let’s not forget why that overhaul was necessary… This Columbus side was awful last season and were it not for a run of five wins out of nine matches in the third quarter of the season (including a win over Chicago), the Crew very well could have earned the wooden spoon. Although an overhaul offers the chance of success, it certainly doesn’t guarantee it. Let’s see where they could struggle.
Goals from the Sky: The revamp summary above made mention of the Crew’s porous backline but their productivity in the final third wasn’t spectacular either. Only Chicago and New England managed to score less than Columbus in the East last season and 16 of their 50 goals came from Ola Kamara. The youngster really impressed in his first season–scoring virtually every type of goal imaginable–but questions remain about whether or not he can repeat the hot streak. If he can’t, where will the goals come from? Columbus has been known for their threat from the wings, but Ethan Finlay cut his 2015 production in half by tallying just six goals last season and Justin Meram tallied just five. Surgery aside, Higuain only tallied four goals and three assists in 20 appearances, a mere shadow of the former player responsible for much of Columbus’ creativity in seasons past. This season will be a big test for those players. They need to prove that last season was a fluke and not part of a larger decline.
Perhaps most worrisome for the Crew in terms of goal production is the fact that they haven’t strengthened at that position. They drafted youngster Niko Hansen in the first round, and despite his game winning goal in the Carolina Challenge Cup, he seems far from ready for the big stage (not to mention that he tends to drift into a wide position). That leaves Ola Kamara and Adam Jahn as the only other forwards. Should one of them get injured the Crew would be in a lot of trouble. We expect them to strengthen in the summer window but for the time being, the Fire should implement the “Chicago Way” and make Kamara second guess his commitment to physicality.
You think You’ve Got Keeper Problems?: While some are questioning Jorge Bava’s readiness to excel in MLS, at least Chicago’s first choice keeper has played professionally. In a move that retrospectively looks like throwing the baby out with the bath water, Berhalter showed veteran goal keeper Steve Clark the door but didn’t adequately replace him. Fourth round draft pick (yes, it does go that high) Logan Ketterer joins Zack Steffen and Brad Stuver on the goal keeping bench. The trio has a total of two MLS matches played between them–both belonging to Stuver. Stuver has also logged four US Open Cup matches including the 2-1 loss against Chicago in June of last year. At 23, 21, and 25 respectively, the trio’s combined age is almost less than that of Higuain and yet one of them will have to be ready to go on Saturday. Berhalter’s preseason line ups seem to indicate that Steffen, a U.S U-21 international, is the preferred option but either way, Nikolic, DeLeeuw, and Accam will have to like their odds in this one.
Prediction: We’ve been sipping on the Kool-Aid. Chicago’s offseason moves pay off while Columbus will wish that they had pursued forward depth and a keeper instead of a fancy sponsor and another awful jersey. Fire 3-1 Crew. Nikolic becomes the first ever Chicago player to score a hat trick on his debut, and Dilly Duka adds a consolation goal for the Crew.
Guillermo Rivera Martin Tomszak Jeff Krause
- Toronto FC 1. Toronto FC 1. Toronto FC
- New York City FC 2. New York Red Bulls 2. New York Red Bulls
- New York Red Bulls 3. Montreal Impact 3. DC
- Atlanta 4. New York City FC 4. Atlanta
- Montreal 5. Atlanta 5. Columbus
- Chicago 6. Chicago* 6. New York City FC
- Philadelphia 7. Columbus 7. New England
- Columbus 8. Philadelphia 8. Montreal
- DC 9. DC 9. Chicago
- Orlando City 10. New England 10. Philadelphia
- New England 11. Orlando City 11. Orlando City
- FC Dallas 1. Portland 1. FC Dallas
- Seattle 2. FC Dallas 2. Seattle
- Los Angeles 3. Los Angeles 3. Colorado
- Portland 4. Seattle 4. Portland
- Vancouver 5. Colorado 5. Sporting KC
- Colorado 6. Real Salt Lake 6. Real Salt Lake
- Real Salt Lake 7. Houston 7. Vancouver
- Sporting KC 8. Vancouver 8. Los Angeles
- Houston 9. Sporting KC 9. Houston
- San Jose 10. Minnesota 10. San Jose
- Minnesota 11. San Jose 11. Minnesota
Toronto FC Toronto FC Toronto FC
Toronto FC FC Dallas Toronto FC
US Open Cup
Seattle Chicago Chicago
*If Fire sign an Enganche