What Are They All About? Columbus Crew
Back on track. This past weekend the Chicago Fire defeated the New England Revolution 4-1 at Toyota Park. Although their opponent had been quickly slipping down the standings, the Fire’s attitude remained firm and their performance was one that highlighted their strengths. Perhaps more importantly, the match saw the inclusion of David Accam in the starting eleven after a tumultuous period of discontent in the squad. The Ghanaian’s departure seems to have been postponed until the season’s end despite rumors to the contrary. After the latest win, supporters will be breathing sighs of relief as Chicago’s Supporters Shield chances remain intact for now.
Their search for silverware and the highest playoff berth possible continues this weekend against a bitter rival as the Fire head to Columbus to take on the Crew this Saturday (6:30 CT CSN Chicago Plus). This is the third and final meeting between these two sides this season with Chicago winning at Toyota Park in April and the sides drawing at MAPFRE Stadium in the season opener. Both sides look much different than they did in those early meetings and there is a lot on the line in this match up. Chicago will have the possibility of leapfrogging Toronto in the standings to take the lead in the Shield race (the Fire will know by half time whether this can be achieved) while Columbus needs three points if they want to further distance themselves from the likes of Orlando, Montreal, and Philadelphia down the playoff stretch.
There is not much time left in the season to jockey for position and neither sides schedule gets any easier. This fixture has produced some heated affairs in the past and we do not expect this one to be any different. Will it be Chicago that remedies their poor away form to set themselves up for glory, or will a new look Columbus hold on to sixth place? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Columbus Form Guide (last five league matches): L-D-L-W-W
Previous Result: A 2-1 away loss to San Jose.
Formation: 3-4-3; Steffen; Naess, Crognale, Mensah; Raitala, Trapp, Artur, Jimenez; Meram, Manneh, Kamara
Strengths: Our readers should be fairly familiar with this Crew SC side so we’ll try to keep this brief. Last time out we focused on the fine form of Justin Meram, the addition of Kekuta Manneh, and Gregg Berhalter’s praise of his team’s ability to execute their game plan to perfection. Meram’s nine goals and seven assists, Manneh’s blistering pace, and Berhalter’s ability to get the best out of his players all remain in place. Let’s see where else the Crew will succeed on Saturday.
X’s and O’s: There seems to be a gap in MLS between coaches who are tactically astute (Vieira, Vanney, Pareja, etc.) and those who can motivate players to get results by running through brick walls (Kinnear, Olsen, Heaps, etc.). Gregg Berhalter and the Crew seem to fall somewhere in between. Berhalter has done some impressive things this season with not very much to work with. If we’re being honest there are few players on this Crew side that would start elsewhere in the league and yet Columbus is looking likely to make the playoffs for the third time in four years. Much of this comes down to Berhalter’s unique ability to nuance tactics while also man managing his squad.
For example, the first two times that Chicago faced this Crew side they lined up in a 4-2-3-1, a formation that saw them struggle to retain possession and left them exposed on the counter with their wingbacks pushing forward to support the front four and the holding mids being asked to play box to box. Since then, Berhalter has shifted to a 3-4-3 to great success. Clogging the midfield has allowed him to stifle opposition that might be technically more skilled than the Crew while shifting to a back three has ensured that they are slightly less vulnerable on the counter. The results has been the Crew’s possession numbers and chance creation have gone up while allowing them to utilize Ola Kamara in ways that fully realize his potential as a striker. Rather than simply pinging in crosses for him to finish, his ability to play with his back to goal, to run into balls played behind the defense, and his technical skill to take defenders on one v. one has thrived under the new system.
Additionally, tucking Justin Meram inside in the narrower formation has allowed for him to play underneath Kamara as a second striker more easily while affording him the ability to overload the right flank in front of Jimenez when needed. His numbers speak for themselves in terms of the success of this switch. It all goes to show that Berhalter is often underrated as a coach and Paunovic should be weary of tinkering with his tactics and substitutions too much. The Fire have paid for his changes in recent away matches and Berhalter’s ability to read the match could come back to haunt them in this encounter.
Spots Up for Grabs: As the MLS summer transfer window came to a close this week, Columbus signed a new designated player. Pedro Santos came up through Braga’s youth system (one of the most technical focused academies in Europe) and has played in Portugal and Romania throughout his career including involvement in Braga’s Champions League forays in recent years. At the ripe age of 29 he still has a long career ahead of him and is being seen as a long-term replacement for Federico Higuain. Although he is still a few weeks away from being able to feature (the Crew are still awaiting his visa), his arrival has lifted spirits in the Columbus camp and it has also signaled that there are no guaranteed spots in the Crew’s midfield. When you add other absences due to injury, there is a healthy sense of competition arising in the squad.
Weaknesses: While you can never discount a Gregg Berhalter-led side, Columbus is barely hanging on in the playoff race. They have played at least one more match than all the teams below them (the difference two or three matches in some cases) and they only have a thing two-point cushion. The MLS standings don’t often lie and the truth of the matter is that this Crew side is a far cry from the success of years past. In recent previews we have talked about the aging Higuain, a bizarre spell of injuries, and Columbus’ inability to play against a high press. Let’s see where else they might struggle in this fixture.
Too Narrow: Although the tactical shift mentioned above has paid dividends on the attacking side of the match, there is a reason why we said they are only “slightly less vulnerable on the counter”. The fact remains that this Crew side is atrocious at defending. A San Jose side that is not a phenomenal team by any stretch of the imagination made the Crew’s back three look like a park district soccer team playing in the middle of summer on a day where their parents forget to pack orange slices and Capri Sun. Jonathan Mensah’s inability to kick into a gear higher than a light jog and Naess/Crognale’s mimicry of that feat has to be infuriating to the rest of their team.
The result of this lack of speed and the pressing of the wingbacks is that the back three often find themselves almost on top of each other in the center of the field. On the first of San Jose’s goals they were all within the width of the eighteen-yard box with the Quake’s wingers almost touching the out-line as they pressed forward. This was visible time and time again throughout that match, most notably in the Quakes last counter of the match in which it was five v. three with the Crew center backs looking gassed despite not running much throughout the match. Chicago will have a field day if they start Accam and Solignac on the wings in this one and if Doody and Polster can replicate their New England performances in this fixture.
Inexperience Between the Posts: Perhaps the biggest question heading into this MLS campaign for Columbus was that of the starting goal keeper. Steve Clark’s departure in the offseason raised questions about who would come in to replace a keeper that had seemingly become a staple in the lineup. Zack Steffen and Brad Stuver rotated at the position throughout the pre-season and the twenty-two-year-old Pennsylvania Native (Steffen) won out and has played every minute of the season. However, we’re not quite convinced that he has any idea what he’s doing. Columbus has allowed a mind boggling thirty-nine goals this season (only DC has allowed more in the East) and while a lot of that has Crognale’s inexperience and the underwhelming performances of Jonathan Mensah, Steffen has had some egregious errors throughout the season.
His positioning seems off (both goals against San Jose this week were suspect at best), he cannot command his box (RSL fully took advantage of this last week), and he has one of the worst passing completion rates of any keeper in the league. Although he has tallied seventy saves on the season, he has the fourth worst save percentage among keepers who have played in more than ten matches and the worst goals against ratio of any single keeper in the league. Nemanja Nikolic, Michael DeLeeuw, David Accam, frankly the whole Fire team, will have circled this fixture on their calendars.
No One Wants to Call Columbus Home: Chicago Fire supporters like to joke about the bleak existence that living in Columbus Ohio affords but the Crew seem to have taken that act seriously. Only DC United (arguably the worst MLS team in recent memory) has lost more home matches than Columbus as MAPFRE stadium has become anything but a fortress this season. Granted, those losses have come against Toronto, Atlanta, and NYCFC, but Chicago’s place in the standings seems to suggest Columbus will have trouble in this one as well.
Injuries: As if Columbus weren’t struggling enough, Harrison Afful could miss with a right thigh strain and did not train fully with the team this week. Additionally, Federico Higuain is listed as questionable with a knee sprain and was the source of midweek criticism after announcing this would be his last season with the Crew.
Prediction: There is too much on the line for Chicago not to succeed in this one. Yes, anything is possible in high stakes rivalry matches but the Fire’s quality will shine through. Chicago 3-1 Columbus. Nemanja Nikolic, Michael DeLeeuw, and David Accam notch goals for the Fire, Justin Meram continues his superb season for the Crew.