What Are They All About? Columbus Crew Open Cup
Less than happy. This past weekend the Chicago Fire defeated the San Jose Earthquakes 2-1 at Toyota Park but despite the result, head coach Veljko Paunovic spent a portion of his post-match presser lamenting missed chances and shambolic defending in the final twenty minutes. While a victory can never be dismissed, scraping by against the worst team in the league certainly is not a boast-worthy achievement and the positives from the match may not go as far as the team might hope as a busy June continues this week. Next on the docket is a visit to MAPFRE stadium for the second time in three weeks to take on the Columbus Crew in the US Open Cup on Wednesday (6:00 CT streaming on Chicago-Fire.com).
Readers should know this Columbus side well given that this is the third meeting between the sides this season and the fourth Open Cup meeting between the two in the past six years. Each team has a regular season home victory in the two previous fixtures. This match will be the seventh overall Open Cup meeting between Columbus and Chicago in their history with the Fire having won all of those encounters. The teams are on two very different trajectories so far in the campaign as the Crew have been in a playoff position since Week 1, while Chicago has yet to find any sort of consistency. However, as the aforementioned history shows, the Fire treat this competition seriously.
Will Berhalter deviate from the script and show this competition some attention or will Paunovic continue relative success in one of the world’s oldest cup competitions? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Columbus Form Guide: D-D-W-W-W
Previous Result: A 3-3 home draw against Toronto.
Formation: 4-2-3-1; Kempin; Afful, Williams, Abubakar, Valenzuela; Clark, Artur; Hansen, Higuain, Grella; Zardes
Strengths: Currently sitting in third place in the East, the Crew are coasting their way through the league. We will try to keep this preview short given that we’ve already written two of these and its only June. Let’s see where Columbus might succeed on Wednesday.
Dust to Diamonds: There are only so many times that you can applaud Gregg Berhalter before it becomes redundant. Hopefully we haven’t reached that tally yet. Time and time again we devote a section to Columbus’ head coach and there’s a reason why. Amidst a season where the future of the franchise is up in the air, the funds to acquire big name players have been withheld, and the total salary expenditure of the club is nineteenth in the league (just over $6.9 million in total allocated budget—less than some sides allocate to one DP…) Berhalter has not only held the team together, he has convinced them that they will compete for trophies. A uniform style that everyone is committed to, a team chemistry that most teams are jealous of, fighting for a community on the brink of losing their club, and the willingness to run through walls fill highlights the atmosphere around MAPFRE and Berhalter this season. No coach has done more with less over the last five years and no one is surprised by the rumblings that he may be the leading candidate for the Men’s national team vacancy.
Streaks Don’t Lie: If you think the above paragraph was fluff and didn’t point to any real “strengths”, here’s one for you: Columbus is currently on an eight-match unbeaten streak which includes five shutouts and a new club record for minutes without conceding. A combination of a consistent back line and opponents being weary to commit numbers forward for fear of being caught out have lead to such a streak defensively. They've done so while tallying double digits in shots thereby ensuring their success in the final third. Additionally, the Crew’s tendency to build around a system rather than personnel could mean that streak continues no matter who lines up for them on Wednesday.
Keep the Ball: If there is one statistic that has been a constant correlation for Columbus and victories at home (they have lost just one of their nine home fixtures this season) it has been their ability to control possession. They have had the majority of the ball in all of those encounters and although such a statistic is not uncommon for home sides in MLS, it will be exceptionally worrisome for a Chicago side still likely to be missing Dax McCarty and opting to rest Bastian Schweinsteiger.
The dual pivot in midfield is key in not only holding onto the ball but in springing counter attacks directly or through Higuain in the center of the pitch. Without McCarty and Schweinsteiger, a dangerous transition only becomes all the more lethal. Lastly, with the likes of Hector Jimenez and Mohammed Abu being rested at the weekend and Pedro Santos perhaps returning from injury in time for the encounter, the Crew midfield will also be a lot fresher than a thin and injury-riddled Fire squad. This could get ugly for Chicago.
Gyasinho: For those counting, Gyasi Zardes has nine goals in fifteen matches for Columbus. He has featured in both previous previews and notched two goals in the last meeting between these two sides. When you take into account that his tallies have come from just nineteen shots on goal, those who laughed at his finishing ability have certainly gone silent. Look for him to continue to haunt this inconsistent Chicago back line.
Weaknesses: There is not much going wrong for this Crew side at the moment. Even being down by three goals wasn’t enough to outdo them this past weekend. They climbed back against Toronto to earn a point. We’ll give it a go anyway. Let’s see where they might struggle on Wednesday.
Priorities: While there might not be too much to hope for on the field if you are a Fire supporter, there is always the magic of the Open Cup. While we won’t utter those famous words about it, you do have to flip through the history books if you watch the slimmest of beacons in the distance.
First and foremost, this Fire side has consistently shown an ability to reach the latter stages of this tournament, boasting four semifinal appearances in the last five runs of the competition. Additionally, head coach Veljko Paunovic has shown that he can succeed in tournaments both on the international stage (U-20 World Cup winner in 2015) and at the club level (the 2016 semi-final Open Cup run with a less than stellar Fire side).
Perhaps most importantly, the Crew have shown an opposite trend when it comes to this tournament. They have won the competition just once in their history (2002) and since then they have only made it past the round of sixteen once (2010). Part of the reason for some of this lack of success in recent years is a distinct apathy towards the competition on the part of Berhalter and the rest of the technical staff. While many MLS sides will play a mixture of first team players and fringe players, last year’s exit to Cincinnati saw an entirely new back line and keeper feature. 2016’s exit to the Fire was equally experimental, and 2015’s exit to Orlando featured players we had to google to make sure they were real. The point is that this competition certainly is not at the top of Berhalter’s to do list and we wouldn’t be surprised if the youngsters get a run out on Wednesday. Or so Fire fans will hope…
Prediction: The history speaks for itself. Columbus will be among the top four teams in the Eastern Conference at the end of the season and Chicago will likely miss out on the playoffs entirely. But this isn’t MLS, this is the Open Cup. Chicago 1-0 Columbus. Who else? Alan Gordon for the visitors.