What Are They All About? Columbus Crew
“It’s a falling domino and nobody stops the domino.” This past weekend the Chicago Fire lost on the road in Montreal by a score of 2-1. They gave up a goal in the dying seconds of the game to lose their eighth straight MLS match and their ninth straight match against MLS opposition. The score line didn’t necessarily tell the story of the encounter as Chicago played well throughout spells of the match and arguably should have left with at least a point. However, the result certainly fits the script for the rest of the Fire’s season in what can only be labeled a catastrophic year for the organization. Although they are well out of the playoff race, there are still two months left in the season and Chicago will need to muster some sort of run of form if they are to halt an historic string of losses and avoid their third wooden spoon in the last four years. Next up on the schedule, a fourth 2018 meeting with Columbus this Thursday (6:00 CT at Toyota Park).
Columbus arrives in the Windy City on the back of their first loss in over a month and will be looking to get back to winning ways as they jostle for playoff seeding. Although Columbus is undergoing their own PR disaster off the field, the community has come together around the impending move to Austin in a way that has fueled results. They are looking to bring one more trophy to the city before the league rips the team away from them and three points against a historic rival would be one of many fond memories from this season for a fanbase that has had more than its fair share of hardship. The emotion is palpable heading into Thursday, but which side will breath a sigh of relief? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Columbus Form Guide: L-W-W-W-L
Previous Result: A 3-1 away loss to Atlanta United.
Formation: 4-2-3-1; Steffen; Jimenez, Abubaker, Mensah, Afful; Artur, Trapp; Santos, Higuain, Opoku; Zardes
Strengths: In previous editions of this column we have brought up a resurgent Gyasi Zardes, Gregg Berhalter’s exceptional coaching ability, chemistry among the attacking players, and a unique system as strengths. All of those certainly remain but we will turn our focus elsewhere to highlight where Columbus might succeed on Thursday.
The Return of the King: In one of the most bizarre MLS transactions we’ve ever seen, Justin Meram has returned to Columbus after less than six months with Orlando City SC. The Iraqi international spent the first seven seasons of his career playing for the Crew (scoring forty goals and amassing thirty-five assists in that time), becoming an integral part of the system that Berhalter developed. Meram sought greener pastures in the offseason and was traded to an Orlando side with explicit trophy ambitions backed by high expenditures.
Following the firing of Jason Kreis and a strange series of personal attacks against Meram by segments of the Orlando fanbase, Meram realized that Columbus was home after all and the Crew were able to secure his return before the summer deadline. They still managed to make a cool $300k in General Allocation Money on the deal and Meram now has a lot to prove on the field and a bit of an outstanding debt to the fans. That makes for a dangerous combination.
Blood in the Water: Enough has been written here about the Fire’s failings this season. The simple fact is that Columbus has a lot to play for and Chicago does not. Frustrations are slowly boiling over from the coaching staff and players alike and a potent Crew side will certainly have the upper hand heading into this encounter.
The Slopes of Bavaria: For those that are wondering why there is an MLS regular season fixture scheduled at 6:00 pm on a Thursday, the Fire requested a change from the matches original Saturday slot so that they could fly out to Germany a few days earlier in anticipation of the Bastian Schweinsteiger testimonial match against Bayern Munich next Tuesday. Not only have the Fire significantly impacted their supporters’ ability to make it to the match on time or at all but the Fire are playing out the string.
Weaknesses: As with the strengths above, many of the weaknesses of this Crew side have been pointed out in earlier previews. We will try to be brief as we unpack this one.
We’ve Got Your Number: If there is anything to be said about Chicago’s chances it’s that they have already gotten the better of this Columbus side twice this season. A 1-0 victory in league play in April was followed up by the Fire ousting Columbus from the Open Cup in June. Although Columbus won at MAPFRE in May, the Fire have not lost at home against the Crew since July of 2015. MLS history might have something to say about the result on Thursday.
Compact Organization: We have spent quite a bit of time discussing Gregg Berhalter’s system in these previews this year on both sides of the strengths/weaknesses divide. This time around, we will focus on how his patented 4-2-3-1 might play into the hands of Chicago. The utilization of dual sixes in the pivot (Trapp and Artur) along with the aging legs of Higuain have ensured that while the fullbacks and Zardes offer outlets in transition, the Crew have largely relied on build up play this season.
Taking a look at their heat maps and completed passes over the last three matches indicates that lateral movement and possession in the middle of the park far out-numbers possession on the flanks, long balls out wide, or passes in behind the defense. Ultimately, Berhalter has tweaked his side’s panache for unfiltered attacking soccer into a more compact concise build up with moments of explosiveness. This has created a situation in which the defensive side of Columbus’ play significantly struggles against counter attacks, specifically play that goes directly down the middle of the field. We have frequently talked about the inexperience of Abubaker and Mensah’s propensity for mistakes and this new build up style of play adds to that frailty because of the tendency for the two midfielders to be caught up field after forays forward.
As proof for this shortcoming, all three of Atlanta United’s goals at the weekend came from transition and the center back pairing being caught on the backfoot. Similarly, both goals given up against New York three weeks ago came in similar fashion and the Crew almost dropped two points late in the encounter on another break away. Aleksandar Katai has done very little since earning his long-term contract, but if he can replicate some of his play from earlier in the campaign and isolate the two center backs on his own or play clever passes in behind for Nikolic to chase onto, there might be a chance for Chicago in this one.
Prediction: An already long season stretches toward what seems like infinity. Chicago 1-3 Columbus. Alan Gordon scores for the hosts. Meram, Zardes, and Mensah for the visitors.
Filed under: 2018 regular season