The Columbus Crew and Chicago Fire meet up in the fifth round of the U.S. Open Cup Wednesday night in Chicago. Both teams have enjoyed some time off of late, as Major League Soccer is finishing up its World Cup break.
The Crew enter this match off the back of a 2-1 overtime win over the Indy Eleven last week that saw them going down to nine men before Jairo Arrieta converted from the penalty spot after 114 minutes.
The Fire played a very different match in their fourth round meeting with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. Although they also earned a 2-1 victory to advance - with goals from Grant Ward and Mike Magee - the game was only 49 minutes in length because the officials deemed the conditions unplayable due to weather.
Brian Cost, contributor to Chicago's SB Nation's Hot Time in Old Town, and I exchanged questions ahead of the match to take a look at what has been going on with the teams before they play a win-or-go-home Open Cup match.
Questions for Hot Time in Old Town
Massive Report: Chicago's only win since they traveled to Columbus was last week's 2-1 Open Cup victory over the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. What has gone wrong for the Fire, who seemed to have things going in the right way before the Crew's 2-0 win over a depleted side?
Hot Time in Old Town: Like Columbus, 2014 has been about reshaping the club in multiple aspects (coaching style, game play, roster and rotation, overall philosophy.) With the house cleaning of the coaching and technical staff at the end of the 2013 season and bringing in Frank Yallop to be the prime mover, a lot of adjustments have been made, much of it with an emphasis on long-term changes. There has been a lot more flexibility and opportunity with the roster. If a player is able, they have the potential to start. To date, 22 of the 27 players on our roster have started, and we've also seen three of our homegrown players actually get first-team minutes (Harry Shipp, Chris Ritter, and Victor Pineda - who is currently on loan to NASL side Indy Eleven) we've seen a change in tactics (compact and higher-pressure, generally,) greater flexibility with formations, and the team playing with a steady confidence, knowing they can win, or if they are behind, they can come back to win. This is definitely not Frank Klopas' Fire.
What's gone wrong is the compound effect of lots of little things: an inconsistent roster, mainly due to injuries to veteran starters, which has forced younger players into the lineup; the silly slip-ups of defenders that result in a goal; a very noticeable lack of depth at forward- Juan Luis Anangano, for all his heart, just hasn't been a very effective forward, but he's had to fill in as starter when Magee was unavailable. It's like Frank Yallop said, we just need that "one little thing." Overall, we've played well and with a good degree of consistency, but the silly stuff has led to where we are on the table today.
MR: Chicago played many of their regulars in their first Open Cup game; do you expect the same with no game on the weekend? How do those around the Fire view the Open Cup in terms of importance?
HTIOT: We'll most likely see the starters. These matches have been a good way for the first team to stay in form, plus, Yallop has said he's taking the tournament seriously. So there's that.
As for the importance of the Open Cup, among the supporters and fervent fan base, it is on an equal level importance as the MLS cup. It's hardware, it's a championship, it's a ticket into the CCL. When the front office and the ownership also get behind it, good things result: four championships, nine appearances in the semi-finals, and an overall 33-11-4 record. When the current owner took the [reins] in 2008, the passion wasn't there, and since then we've only made the semi-finals twice and the finals once; though, to his credit, (and as a result of a very vocal fan base,) he's come around. Pretty much.
MR: Chicago currently sits 3 points from the bottom of the Eastern Conference but the team is only four points out of a playoff spot. What is the mood around the Fire with how things have gone thus far in the season? Would a deep run in the Open Cup be a good thing for this team?
HTIOT: With the effort that's been put in, and the disappointment with the results, there's some frustration. No one's completely thrown in the towel earning a playoff spot, since the Eastern Conference has been so topsy-turvy this year. That said, good results anywhere are something to build on.
Questions for Massive Report
Hot Time in Old Town: Looking at the Crew's transition to Berhalter's possession-based system, what areas have the Crew excelled at, and what areas still need improvement?
Massive Report: Columbus has certainly excelled in the possession and passes completed. They are second in the league with 56% of the ball and are tops with 82.5% passes completed. The Black and Gold are yet to be out possessed in a game this year, including going up against other possession-based teams Sporting Kansas City, Red Bull New York, and Real Salt Lake. This is night and day from last season's team that struggled to keep the ball, so that has been a drastic improvement.
The biggest area of improvement has been in front of goal, where the Crew have struggled. Columbus has scored just 18 goals in 15 games and were shutout three consecutive games in May. The players insist the goals will come as long as they stick with the system. They believe in the talent to score and we've seen that with five goals in three games before the World Cup break, but it has not been consistent.
HTIOT: Columbus is travelling to Chicago with 16 players tomorrow and will be without Higuain, Trapp, and, apparently, Alvaro Rey. Who will the key players be, and what's your gut say about the outcome of the match?
MR: It will be interesting to see how Berhalter handles this situation, especially with a return to league play on Saturday. Michael Parkhurst is this team's captain and best defender so he will obviously be key to this game, but the performance of the player next to him (likely Eric Gehrig or Tyson Wahl) will also be important.
Offensively, Ben Speas has to have a good game for the Crew to succeed. He will be in Higuain's position playing behind a single striker, and he has shown an ability to create in number 10's absence. I would also say this game hinges on Jairo Arrieta's ability to cause havoc. He scored the last time these two teams met and would love to do so again.
In recent years, the Crew have not done well in the Open Cup against MLS sides, so I don't have high expectations. With the low numbers, it would surprise me if Chicago doesn't advance.
HTIOT: We're coming up to the summer transfer window. What positions are the Crew looking to fill, and are there any prospects in the wings?
MR: As mentioned above, Columbus has struggled to find the net in games this year. Arrieta has good work rate and Crew fans would love to see him return to the form of two years ago when he arrived, but that just hasn't happened. If Berhalter and company can find a consistent striker who can help in possession, but be clinical in front of goal, it would be a huge benefit.
The Portland Timbers loaned and then purchased Fanendo Adi, who has already scored four goals in six games. A player like this would be someone the Black and Gold could really use.
HTIOT: BONUS- Even though he's likely not starting, I have to ask: Alvero Rey- what qualities will he bring to the starting XI, and how could that potentially change the dynamic of the team (pairings, game play, etc.?)
MR: Rey certainly won't play in this game because he is cup tied (I didn't know the Canadian Cup impacted the U.S. Open Cup either). I think Rey could be an interesting piece. Berhalter said today and last week that he believes it will take some time for Rey to get used to the style of play, but Rey said he is excited to play the possession style. I think at the worst it gives the Crew some more depth in the midfield.
Depending on how he is going to be used, he could potentially find himself in the starting lineup. I know plenty of fans in Columbus would love to see a new partner for Wil Trapp in the center of the park.