What Are They All About? Columbus Crew
A valiant effort. This past weekend the Chicago Fire Soccer Club lost on the road against the New England Revolution by a score line of 2-1. A highly contested match and a fairly impressive road showing was squandered by a late Chicago mistake as Gustavo Bou pounced on a misplaced Francisco Calvo pass in transition before emphatically putting the ball into the roof of the net. The result means that the Fire sit four points outside of a playoff place with just five matches remaining in the season. Although head coach Veljko Paunovic has been calling matches must win encounters for several weeks now, that sentiment is now an understatement as Chicago will need to win at least four of their remaining matches and look for help from elsewhere if they are to crawl above the red line. First up, Columbus away on Saturday (6:30 CT on ESPN+).
This will be the second meeting between these two sides after a midweek encounter in July ended 2-2 at SeatGeek Stadium. Caleb Porter’s time at the helm of the Crew has gone anything but smoothly as they sit eleventh in the East. We analyzed the failings of the new project extensively in our column leading up to that first game and the result left Porter and his charges staring at a ten-match winless streak. Things have gotten slightly better for the Black and Yellow since then. They’ve picked up three wins in their last seven matches—losing just one of those—and in the bizarre world that is MLS, a win over Chicago would see them still mathematically vying for a playoff spot. As with all matches in the final stretch, there is plenty of potential for drama in this one. With two bottom dwelling clubs, who will stay alive for another week? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Columbus Form Guide: W-L-D-D-D
Previous Result: A 3-1 away win over Cincinnati
Formation: 4-2-3-1; Room; Maloney, Williams, Mensah, Afful; Trapp, Artur; Mokhtar, Santos, Diaz; Zardes
Strengths: In our previous discussion of this matchup we spoke about David Accam’s success against his former club and the fact that the Ghanaian continues to play with a chip on his shoulder when facing off against the organization that effectively tanked his promising career. He performed well for sixty minutes in July and played a key role in the attack on Columbus’ first tally. Similarly, the other flank posed a danger against Chicago’s unwillingness to track back on the day. Both of those avenues will still be available to Columbus but let’s see where else they might succeed.
Gyasinho’s Return to Form: One of the weaknesses in July’s preview was the complaint that Gyasi Zardes was not fulfilling expectations or justifying his DP status. Having scored just six goals at that point of the season and needing an average of five attempts per tally, the numbers were not looking good for the USMNT forward. Since then, he’s added another five tallies to his total and contributed two assists to the side. Part of it has been an increase in service, but he’s also hit a vein of form in recent weeks with his first touch, clinical finishing, and positioning all clicking. A brace against Cincy at the weekend, in what genuinely felt like a rivalry match, will do wonders for Zardes’ confidence heading back to MAPFRE Stadium. When you add Chicago’s recent defensive blunders into the mix, this is a perfect match for him to shine in.
Summer Reinforcements: We discussed Columbus’ threat on the flanks above and stretching the field has become part and parcel of Porter’s blueprint for successful teams over the years. The problem throughout the season on the wings however has been aging legs, inconsistency, and a lack of depth/competition. Porter was given the resources to fix those things in the summer transfer window and he brought in Luis Diaz as a Young DP from Herediano and utilized TAM to bring in Youness Moukthar from Stabaek.
The Moroccan/Dutch dual national came up through PSV’s youth academy before spending a decade bouncing around the Eredivisie honing his technical skills. He had a breakout game against Cincy, completing 85% of his passes, tallying multiple successful dribbles, and proving his prowess as a two-way player by contributing six successful defensive interventions to the Crew’s match efforts. If Katai is back for this encounter he’ll need to track back more than ever, a tall ask given his typical laissez faire approach to defending in transition.
As for the young Colombian, he’s really hit the ground running and reiterated Porter’s ability to uncover diamonds in the rough when it comes to Central and South American players. A goal and three assists in eight matches—just four starts—is an impressive haul for anyone but for a twenty-year-old adjusting to a new league, it’s nothing short of remarkable. His one on one ability was showcased against Cincy as both Victor Ulloa and Andrew Gutman were left in the dust after sharp moves and quick feet saw Diaz blow past them several times each. His service was also impeccable, assisting Zardes by serving up a tap in on a platter and providing the lone striker with several more opportunities as well. Frankowski and Bornstein will need to be on the same page and Paunovic might want to think about his lineup choices on the backline for this one.
Weaknesses: If beating FC Cincinnati won you a trophy, there’d be celebration across the entire country (well, except for in Chicago). Defeating the league’s worst team should not instill you with too much confidence and there is still a lot wrong with this Crew side. Last time out, in addition to the aforementioned underperformance of Zardes we also discussed questions of identity as the Crew wrestled with the post-Berhalter era. Let’s see where else they might struggle in this one.
Too Quick to Praise: While Zardes’ recent revival has been much appreciated in Columbus, the fact of the matter is that his eleven tallies make up over a third of the Crews thirty-two goals on the season. Only Cincinnati and Vancouver have scored less than the Black and Yellow. Similarly, their negative eleven goal differential is only outdone by those same two sides. Zardes and Pedro Santos (nine tallies) are simply not getting enough help from their teammates when it comes to goal scoring. Yes, Federico Higuain’s season ending injury impacts both the chances created and goals statistics, but Porter has had three months to find a replacement for the aging Argentine and failed to do so.
Having tried Santos as a ten or attempting a dual pivot with Artur and Guzman have both hit snags in their attempts to replicate Higuain’s contributions. Santos’ tendencies as a winger have shown through when he’s been asked to deputize in midfield, often drifting wide, passing the ball off under pressure, or going headfirst into one v. one situations rather than acting as a calm distributor in the middle of the park. In the three matches prior to the Cincy encounter, Santos barely managed a 60% pass completion rate, and his decision making against Toronto resulted in turnovers that directly led to TFC’s counterattacking goals.
The dual pivot on the other hand, simply isn’t creative enough when it comes to generating attacking threats. Static, predictable, and slow in development, they’re easily read and easily thwarted. The clearest example of their shortcomings came in the match against NYCFC where the duo managed just three successful attacking forays, one shot on target, and two successful passes in the final third between the two of them. Their passing rate was incredibly high in that encounter but was largely relegated to their own half. There simply isn’t a creative spark in this side other than hoofing it up the wings into space and having the aforementioned wingers chase down the ball and hope Zardes is open. With such a lack of ingenuity, the Fire will know exactly what they are up against.
Midwest Politeness: There are two contributors to negative goal differentials. We discussed scoring above, let’s take a look at the defensive side now. The last four goals that Columbus has conceded have been beyond soft. The center back pairing, whether Mensah and Williams or Mensah and Crognale, just seems to switch off in crucial moments. Whether it’s springing the offside trap, marking runners into the box on set pieces, or closing down shooting opportunities quickly, they aren’t doing the basics correctly. For a coach as meticulous as Porter, he has to be tearing his hair out watching tape from the last few weeks. If Nikolic’s form continues and Sapong’s pressing remains consistent, chances will come for the Fire in this encounter.
Prediction: The Fire will allow their supporters to dream for another week. Chicago 3-2 Columbus. Nemanja Nikolic, CJ Sapong, and Jonathan Bornstein for the visitors. Gyasi Zardes and David Accam for the hosts. It’s going to be a wild month in MLS.