What Are They All About? Columbus Crew SC
Five points. After four matches played in MLS, the Chicago Fire sit on five points. It must be noted that this is the same points total at this juncture of the season last year, and has been about average for the Fire over the last seven playoff-less years. When you add the fact that the schedule makers were rather kind to them this year, and are gently reminded that Nelson Rodriguez and Veljko Paunovic have been adamant that they’ve been given ample resources to succeed, we are left scratching our heads. Yes, Bastian Schweinsteiger’s debut against Montreal this past Saturday was a masterclass in passing, fighting spirit, and overall brilliance, but the result was eerily similar to what Chicago has been able to muster of late. Terrible defending and some mind boggling goal keeping spoiled the party for not only Schweinsteiger, but for many fans who had chalked that match up as an easy victory.
We’ve been firm about not judging this project until the ten-match mark, but having faltered at the first and easiest hurdle of a three-match home stint, we’re left with an uneasy feeling. The Fire will have an opportunity to set the ship straight this coming Saturday as they face Columbus Crew SC once again, this time with Schweinsteiger at the helm. Should they fail to secure three points, that uneasy feeling may just turn into panic as they look in the rear view mirror at what may have been. Chicago simply cannot afford to pack their bags for a three-match road stint against Toronto, New York, and LA with anything less than seven points from this stretch. In fact, should the Fire stumble against Columbus and New England we’re not sure we’ll have the same project to judge at the ten-match mark…
With the stakes that high and the caliber of professionals in the squad, Chicago should respond accordingly. However, Columbus is not just going to roll over for them. Sitting at the top of the East and level on points with Portland in the Supporters Shield race, this Crew side has really bounced back from a disappointing 2016 season. Berhalter made the right moves in the offseason and has integrated his new players well. Will Columbus continue to run like a well-oiled machine and cement their status as one of the best teams in the league, or will Chicago ride off into the sunset on the coat tails of Schweinsteiger’s Giorgio Armani suit? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Columbus Form Guide: W-W-W-L-D
Previous Match: A home victory over Orlando City.
Formation: 4-2-3-1: Steffen; Afful, Crognale, Naess, Raitala; Artur, Trapp; Finlay, Higuain, Meram; Kamara
Strengths: Having already previewed this Columbus side for the first match of the season, we urge you to revisit that preview as a refresher. It included a discussion of the tactical flexibility offered by their new personnel, Berhalter’s ability to react to in-game scenarios appropriately, and their danger on the wings. Those all remain true, and unfortunately for Chicago, this Columbus side has honed those traits to perfection over the last three matches. Let’s see where they could succeed.
Peeking Justin Time: The easiest place to start this section is with the recent form of Justin Meram. The Iraqi international had a breakout season last season tallying five goals and thirteen assists, earning a new deal in the process. He’s been in fine form this season as well, already notching three goals and two assists in his five appearances. However, his success stretched beyond just mere statistics as he has become an integral part of the versatility at Berhalter’s disposal. Having played as both a striker and right winger at the University of Michigan but serving predominantly as a left winger for Columbus, Meram has developed a unique skill set. A lot of players like to tout two-footedness but Meram’s cool finishes with either foot against Orlando really highlight that trait. It also means that while he is dangerous cutting inside from the left flank, he can also hug the touchline to put in one of the vintage crosses that made him an assist leader last year. With questions looming large about Higuain’s future with the Crew, Meram’s quality on the ball could even ease up some of the tension of finding a new playmaker. The Michigan native is quietly establishing himself as a solid league veteran and should Harrington start again on Saturday, we fully expect Meram to find himself on the score sheet again.
Manneh You’ve Got to Be Kidding: As if Chicago didn’t have enough to worry about on the flanks, Berhalter answered our preseason question of midfield congestion by shipping Tony Tchani to Vancouver in exchange for Kekuta Manneh. Having completed his first training session on Tuesday, Manneh should be ready to go by Saturday and he’s eager to establish himself in the squad. He served as a regular starter for Vancouver in 2013-2015 before injuries, poor form, and heavy squad competition saw him start just thirteen matches last year. The change of scenery has him smiling again and he told reporters that he really enjoys the way in which Columbus moves the ball and the speed with which they play. Manneh can be utilized on the left or the right and also served as a lone forward for Vancouver and his speed should worry the Chicago backline. With his versatility, it seems as if Columbus has a specific system in mind and shops accordingly. Imagine that.
Execution of the Plan: In his post-match presser after the Orlando encounter, Berhalter was asked about the team’s recent success–the victory marked a third consecutive victory–and he chalked it all up to his team’s ability to carry out instructions. They defend as a team by pressing quickly and holding the attackers accountable for losses of possession, they know that chances will come with the creative capabilities of Higuain, Meram, Finlay, and Artur, and they trust that they can put matches away with their attacking quality. Berhalter commended the team shape, the implementation of tactics discussed on the training field, and the self-belief that they can put matches away. Over the course of their three-match winning streak, there has not been a moment where Columbus has looked truly disengaged or out of the match, even when they were losing in Portland. This level of confidence in the plan is perhaps the most dangerous attribute of the team. There are times when Columbus looks beautiful going forward (like many of the breaks against Portland), and there are times when they seemingly stumble into results (like the two dubious penalties and scrappy performance in DC), all that matters is that their belief is racking up points.
Weaknesses: As we wrote the first preview of this Crew side we wondered where their goals would come from, if the new signings would gel, and who they would start as their goakeeper. Well, all of those weaknesses have been rectified. Kamara has remained healthy so their decision not to start a striker has worked out, Meram has picked up the goal scoring torch, and three consecutive clean sheets mean that the defense and Steffen have gelled quite nicely. Let’s see what we can come up with anyway.
Injuries: While Gaston Sauro’s season ending injury is the only one officially on the injury report, Jonathan Mensah has not trained with the team this week but has been riding a stationary bike on the sideline. Dilly Duka is also not in full training with a calf contusion (to the chagrin of many Fire supporters). In addition to those injuries Columbus is also dealing with a mini goalkeeping crisis as Zack Steffen missed Wednesday’s training due to illness and Brad Stuver did not dress because of a shoulder injury–assistant coach Pat Onstad filled in as the goalie during the session.
Hold My Cain, I’m Going on a Meandering Run: We alluded to it above, but there is a cloud of uncertainty around the Argentine DP. No, he isn’t actually that old (just thirty-two), but his contribution level has waned in the wake of a series of injuries. Most notably, a hernia surgery kept him out for nearly two months last season after a number of half-inspired performances of abdominal pain revealed the larger issue. Higuain started just eighteen matches in that underwhelming campaign and produced just three goals and four assists. In 2015, Higuain’s season was slightly better with nine assists and eight goals in a season that ended with an MLS cup final loss. When compared to other “marquee” players, those stats aren’t that impressive and perhaps don’t warrant a salary that is well above the one million-dollar mark. Many of the moves being made by Berhalter seem to indicate that perhaps Higuain’s days are numbered. However, his salary and veteran status warrant continued starts. We believe that a strong performance from Dax McCarty and Schweinsteiger in midfield should help to exacerbate many of the questions running through Higuain’s head.
Beat Them at Their Own Game: Columbus’ sole loss on the season came against a resurgent Houston Dynamo side. Aside from clinical finishing, Houston thrived because of their ability to constantly pressure Columbus, something the Crew pride themselves on. Everything from closing down goal kicks when the Crew attempted to play out of the back, to being glued to Meram and Finlay as they attempted to cross into the final third was orchestrated to perfection. Columbus finished that match with the bulk of possession but they were largely relegated to lateral passes in their own half. We’re not sure if all of the members of the Chicago squad are on the same page in terms of pressing, nor are we sure that they are fit enough or mentally strong enough to follow through, but the example is there to be emulated…
Wounded Lion: No, we aren’t talking about Michael DeLeeuw. Chicago’s growing desperation and the Process’ need for affirmation may be the deciding factor in this one. Columbus is sitting comfortably on their perch and a loss of two or three points won’t be the end of the world for them in this one. Will they be complacent? Perhaps not, but they have more room for error than the Fire do.
Prediction: We’ve been sipping Kool-Aid since matchday one and although it’s getting stale and developing that sugary filament that comes with age, we’ll reluctantly take another swig. Chicago 2-1 Columbus. It won’t be pretty, but Chicago needs this result. Schweinsteiger opens the scoring, Meram levels it, and Nikolic buries the 94th minute game winner from the spot after MLS voodoo magic works in Accam’s diving favor.