What Are They All About? Columbus Crew SC
Winless. This past weekend the Chicago Fire drew 2-2 with the Portland Timbers at Toyota Park. The match result was visible from a mile away with both teams suffering from defensive frailty. A masterclass from Bastian Schweinsteiger saved the home side’s blushes, while Portland’s Argentine midfielders shined for the visitors. The result meant that Chicago was winless through the first month of the season and earned just a point to start out a three-match home stint that they ideally wanted nine points from. It won’t get any easier for the Fire as they host their bitter rivals, Columbus Crew SC, this Saturday at Toyota Park (7:30 pm CT). We will save you the lengthy rant about offseason failures, locker room issues, and a downward spiraling club because you’ve heard it all before. It’s as if last year was a dream and the Fire have returned to the status quo that has earned them a slew of unwanted records under the stewardship of Andell Holdings. Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Columbus Form Guide: W-W-D-W-L
Previous Result: A 2-1 home loss to Vancouver.
Formation: 4-3-2-1; Steffen; Afful, Mensah, Abubakar, Jimenez; Artur, Trapp; Santos, Higuain, Martinez; Zardes
Strengths: It certainly won’t be difficult to praise the team currently sitting second in the Supporters Shield standings. This Columbus side has been consistent in both their outlook and performances. Chicagoans may hate this yellow team, but they’ll also have to admire them. Let’s see where the Crew might succeed this weekend.
You Can Call Me Fergie: If it seems like praising Gregg Berhalter is a frequent occurrence in our previews, that’s because it is. The sideline maestro is, in my opinion, the most underrated coach in MLS. He has often been given very little to work with in terms of a transfer budget, scouting resources, and the Crew training facility may be one of the only such venues that compares to the Fire’s gravel bordered pitch in Bridgeview. And yet, the Crew have consistently made the playoffs during his five-year tenure as coach.
As a player, Berhalter spent nearly his entire career playing in Germany and Holland, stints that led to his no-nonsense approach to tactical strictness in terms of players knowing their responsibilities, as well as an affinity for the technical side of the game. Additionally, Berhalter has been touted as one of the best man managers in the league and has been able to solve problems ranging from helping South American players integrate to living in Ohio (Higuain), mold young players into team captains, scout talent at all levels of the American game (Trapp), know when it’s time for players to move on for better (Meram) or for worse (Lampson) and isn’t afraid to ship big ego-ed players outside of the club when they prove to be problematic (Kamara).
Humble, hardworking, soft-spoken, and direct, Berhalter has come out on top over Paunovic in four of their nine MLS encounters (the Serbian registered two wins in that time and the remainder were draws) and is seemingly the favorite in this encounter as well. Although he will be on the wrong side of the touchline in this match, expect the Crew manager to play a part in this one.
Gyasinho: Perhaps the biggest question mark heading into this season was where Columbus’ goals were going to come from. Justin Meram (14 G, 8 A), Kekuta Manneh (4 G, 3 A), and Ola Kamara (19 G, 4 A) led the Columbus attack all the way to the Conference Final last year, but all three have since moved to greener pastures. However, with Manneh featuring infrequently for Pachuca, Meram yet to hit the ground running at Orlando, and Kamara nervously looking over his shoulder after the arrival of Zlatan in LA, they may all be wishing they had stuck around. Either way, their contributions were vital to Columbus success and Crew fans were left stunned at the dismantling of such a good side.
Fears were not alleviated when the trade window saw the addition of just one striker, Gyasi Zardes, from LA as part of the Kamara deal. A breakout season in 2014 resulted in the Galaxy product touted as the next best thing before a sharp decline saw him turn into the laughing stock of the USMNT bench. A career low two goals in twenty-four club appearances in 2017 had people wondering what happened to the wonder kid.
It seems that Berhalter has worked his magic once more as Gyasi has netted four goals in five matches this season and perhaps more importantly, has exhibited the power, strength, speed, and hunger that stole the hearts of onlookers five years ago. With Chicago unsure of whether they are playing with a back three or a back four, and Tony Tchani, Dax McCarty, and Bastian Schweinsteiger lacking chemistry in the middle of the park, Zardes will like his chances of increasing his total on the season.
Personnel Consistency: A Columbus strength that Chicago should be envious of is the Crew’s ability to continually put out the same lineup. The chemistry and understanding present within this Columbus side is not just a product of Berhalter’s coaching but must also be attributed to playing time among the starting eleven. All but one of this season’s five matches have figured the exact same starting lineup. The only exception was the encounter against DC United when Zack Steffen and Will Trapp were missing due to a USMNT call up in which they were able to see field time together. With Chicago’s system and lineup constantly in flux, the Crew will take solace in knowing what their roles are.
Away is the New Home: With all of the controversy swirling around Anthony Precourt looking to move the team to Austin, Columbus has not been the same fortress that it has been in years prior. Low attendance turnouts (outside of the home opener), a feeling of being in limbo on the part of a supporter base that has been ardently following the sport since the league’s inception, and a weariness of extended attachment on the part of players has plagued the Crew at MAPFRE stadium this year. Luckily for Columbus, they’ll be playing in Bridgeview this weekend.
Not only have Berhalter’s charges not lost on the road this year, they have yet to concede a goal as the visiting team and limited home sides to just five total shots on target. Interestingly enough, although the backline performed admirably against Toronto and Philadelphia, it isn’t a conservative approach that has rewarded this Crew side. Berhalter and the players on the pitch are astute enough to make tactical shifts but the decision to play the same system both home and away has been the catalyst for their success. They’ll have the edge in confidence as the Fire become more and more desperate to get something from this home stint.
Weaknesses: MLS is a league of parity and soccer is a sport in which surprises are the norm. On paper this may not be a close match up but there is certainly the chance for Chicago to play spoiler in this one. Let’s see where the Crew might struggle on Saturday.
What do Wingbacks do in Transition?: The most important lesson to be learned from Columbus’ loss against Vancouver is that they continue to be vulnerable on the flanks. This problem has plagued the Crew for years now and is just an inherent part of their system. Berhalter likes to utilize outside backs that are comfortable going forward both in terms of making over lapping runs and carrying the ball forward. Crosses from the flanks from Afful and Raitala were the norm last season and Milton Valenzuela’s arrival from Newell’s as a young DP to replace the Fin has only reinforced such an approach. However, with Afful turning thirty-two this season, his speed and recovery are not what they used to be while the nineteen-year-old Argentine has shown a lack of discipline in tracking back. Berhalter may instill the need for such a facet in the youngsters play eventually, but for now he has been caught out repeatedly.
An early first half break for Vancouver, both of the Whitecap goals, Yamil Asad’s tally for DC, and the service for Raheem Edwards’ Montreal volley, all came on the back of a lack of fullback pressure. While this is not necessarily ideal for a Chicago side that lacks width due to the departure of Accam and injuries to Solignac and Polster, it is a visible weakness.
Desperation: We are firm believers in the phrase “a wounded dog is a dangerous dog”. With Nelson Rodriguez’s failures in the transfer window evident to all, the failures on the field have started to accumulate for Chicago and the locker room may be close to reaching a boiling point. Paunovic made it clear that the attitude and performances of his charges have not been up to par and he seemingly told the players that no one’s spot in the lineup is assured. The likes of Drew Conner (who had a phenomenal match against Portland), Diego Campos, and Mo Adams may finally get starts and they’re desire could prove to be a tipping point against a Columbus side that could slip on the fine line that divides consistency from complacency.
Additionally, the match against Columbus is likely the most winnable fixture for Chicago this month. LA visits the Windy City next weekend with Zlatan looking to continue his conquest of MLS before the Fire travel to league power houses New York Red Bull and Toronto FC. It is very likely that if the Fire fail to earn three points against Columbus that they could be winless into May, a reality that would all ensure a return to the mediocrity that has plagued the club of late. Desperation is a dangerous beast and it is slowly creeping into the psyches of the men donning red jerseys.
Prediction: Paunovic told supporters to brace themselves for a tough road ahead and this match will be as gloomy as this Chicago Spring. Chicago 1-3 Columbus. Nikolic continues his defense of the golden boot for the Fire, Zardes nets a brace, and Afful puts an exclamation point on a thorough Crew victory.