When the Columbus Crew and the Chicago Fire meet on Saturday, it will be a game between two teams going in opposite directions. The Crew started the season 3-0, but have now not won in eight games. The Fire couldn't buy a win for their first eight games, but have now won two in a row.
It's an Eastern Conference clash on Military Appreciation Night!
Questions for Hot Time In Old Town
Massive Report: After no wins in the first eight games, the Fire have now taken the full three points in their last two matches. Has there been a noticeable difference in the play or did things just finally start going Chicago's way?
Hot Time In Old Town: It's a little bit of both. The Fire clearly haven't had many problems going forward - they're averaging just a shade under two goals a game. Almost invariably, when Chicago have dropped points, it's been down to defensive failures - particularly in set-piece situations. Of the 19 goals the Fire have surrendered, something like 13 have come from dead balls. When the defense doesn't present goals like a bouquet of flowers to the opposition, Chicago are very hard to beat. That 'if' is a big 'if.'
MR: Mike Magee is the name most fans recognize, but rookie Harry Shipp and journey man Quincy Amarikwa both have had an impact for the Fire this season. Give Crew fans who may not have seen many Chicago games this year some background on these two and anyone else they might want to keep an eye on Saturday
HTIOT: Harry Shipp is everything you've heard and then some, but the first thing you might notice is what he's not - he's not tall, he's not fast. He's not given to step-overs. But his first touch is among the best in the league; his vision and use of space make everyone around him a threat. In fact, if I had to compare him to another player in the league, it would be the Crew's own [Federico Higuain]. Like Higuain, he's the mind at the center of the motion.
Quincy Amarikwa's 2014 has been a feel-good story. Amarikwa seems undersized to play the target-man role, but tremendous upper-body strength and sense of leverage allow him to battle physical center backs. He's explosive, works hard for the team, and does a hilarious web series devoted to MLS fantasy and peppered with oddball challenges.
In terms of pure X-factor impact, it's doubtful we'll see much from Grant Ward on Saturday, but he's someone who will be playing a lot very soon. The 19-year-old flank defender, acquired on loan from Tottenham, was a revelation in preseason until a broken fifth metatarsal sidelined him for a couple of months. He's close enough now that making the gameday 18 on Saturday is a possibility.
MR: Sean Johnson is a name that get mentioned with the U.S. squad quite a bit. He has made 110 appearances for Chicago before his 25th birthday, so he must be doing something right. Obviously he did not make this year's World Cup roster, but is he a legit option for the future? What makes him special in the Toyota Park net?
HTIOT: Rangy, strong, and surprisingly quick, Johnson is a classic American shot-stopping keeper - witness his left-hand save on Thierry Henry that preserved the Fire's first win of the season. We've watched Sean progress from a nervous guy who flapped at crosses into an aggressive leader who demands accountability. His positioning, footwork and decision-making have improved to the point that he no longer has to bail himself out with highlight-reel saves as often, which is encouraging in a keeper who's only 25.
Questions for Massive Report
Hot Time In Old Town: Federico Higuain - Man or Super-Man? Discuss.
Massive Report: Haha great question. In this league, I would say somewhere in between, leaning towards Super-Man. The Thierry Henry's and Robbie Keane's of MLS are the Super-Mans and Higuain is not quite there but he's in the next tier. Just last week, he reminded Crew fans of how good he is, chipping Donovan Ricketts from well outside the box with Ricketts not far off his line (if you haven't seen the goal, you should).
The forward is constantly moving and can be a goal scorer or a setup man. The fans in Columbus are getting spoiled, basically going from Guillermo Barros Schelotto to Federico. He may not have the name recognition of some of the players in this league but he certainly should be mentioned with them.
HTIOT: Columbus has seemed to find their possession game, so successful in the early season, blunted in recent weeks. Has something changed? Is it just the breaks? How is the mood around the team right now?
MR: The possession numbers have actually stayed pretty consistent. The Black and Gold have been over 50% in every game this season. The issue, up until last week, was scoring goals. Early in the year the ball movement was resulting in goals, but recently no one has been able to find the net. After a three goal explosion last week against the Portland Timbers, it will be interesting to see if they can carry the goals over to this week.
In terms of the mood, I actually talked to several of the players about that this week. They were disappointed they didn't get the full three points last week, but encouraged with some of the play. They say the mood is still good because they know the results will come. They're playing the way they want to and the team believes in the system. Despite a lack of results, the soccer has usually been entertaining to watch.
HTIOT: How is Michael Parkhurst's absence likely to affect the Crew's defense?
MR: It's not just Parkhust that is gone from the back line. His center back partner Giancarlo Gonzalez and left back Waylon Fracis are both with Costa Rica after starting every game before they left. The defense has been good for the Crew, allowing just over a goal a game until last week's late-game debacle in Portland and these three have been a big part of it. Parkhurst is rarely out of position defensively and Gonzalez has made some big time tackles early this season. Francis is a work horse getting up and down the flanks, which is crucial in Berhalter's system.
Last week, Berhalter started Tyson Wahl in the center of the defense with Gonzalez (who didn't leave until Sunday) and second-year player Chad Barson at left back. Neither had played much this season and that could have played a part in the late game collapse. I would imagine you would see more of the same this week with either Eric Gehrig or Kevan George, who was called up from his loan to the Crew's affiliate last week, partner Wahl. Another week of training should help the unit, but it wouldn't surprise me to see cracks in the armor.