It's the 53rd all-time meeting between Columbus Crew SC and the Chicago Fire. These two teams come into the match separated by just four points and a win would go along way for either side in this contest.
Crew SC come into the match after another road loss last week to the San Jose Earthquakes. Columbus is yet to get a win on the road, but have only lost once in five games at MAPFRE Stadium. The last times the fans saw the Black and Gold in person, the team walked off the field 3-2 winners over the Seattle Sounders in a convincing victory.
Chicago enters the match looking to really get things back on track. The Fire began the season with three straight losses, but followed that up with three victories in a row. Since then, the side has been a little all over the place as they attempt to find their position within MLS' Eastern Conference.
To preview the match, I spoke with SB Nation's Fire blog, Hot Time in Old Town's Editor-in-Chief, Sean Spence. We discussed who Chicago really are, the forwards for either side, and I even gave him some of my best poetry.
Here is what came of our discussion and a little preview into Friday night's game.
Massive Report: The Fire began the year with three losses, before rattling off three wins on the trot. Since then they are 1-1-1. Who is Chicago nine games into the season? Does anyone know?
Hot Time in Old Town: The results have wobbled all over the map, certainly, but in terms of shape and coherence when the ball is in play, this Fire group eclipses last year's draw-masters fairly comprehensively. The defense has traded last year's swashbuckling mentality for a more dispassionate solidity. Matt Polster's emergence in defensive midfield has given that group a cleaner base to build from, as well as significant bite. And the attacking, creative group has grown from week to week; the combination of David Accam's lightning pace with Harrison Shipp and Shaun Maloney's movement and ideas has created chances in bunches.
That's the good news for the fans in red, but it's not the whole story. Unfortunately, the team is still afflicted by a sort of professional immaturity - too pleased with inconclusive half-successes, too casual when presented with opportunities to put games out of reach, and too prone to puzzling breakdowns with the game on the line. Last week's draw in New York City is a perfect case in point - the Fire comprehensively dominated the first half, up two goals and a man, but coughed up egregiously soft goals in each stoppage time to give up two points. It's a pattern which manages to provoke nausea despite its familiarity.
MR: Harry Shipp is a name many around MLS became familiar with last year with his debut season and second place finish for Rookie of the Year. He already has one goal and three assists this season. How has he developed as a player between this year and last and what does he add to the Fire's midfield?
HTOT: Shipp's offseason workout regimen was the talk of preseason, and it's really paid off for the enganche from Lake Forest. Last season, he obviously struggled to finish games, and suffered through a two-month barren patch caused by the grinding fatigue of a full professional schedule. This year, he's looked sharp and fresh throughout, and no longer starts glancing at the bench an hour into the game. It also helps Shipp with the chopping-wood, carrying-water part of playing in midfield; he'll never be a great defender, but he no longer looks drained by the necessity of falling back into the team defensive shape.
That's not the only difference, of course. Shipp's first touch - always very clean - has continued to improve, so much so that he's looked more comfortable in the very tight spaces in the center of the attacking zone than the ostensible No. 10, Maloney. If I was to compare Shipp to another MLS player, in fact, it would be Columbus' very own Federico Higuain. He's much younger than Pipa, of course, but the similarities are there to be seen - that ability to drift into ignored spaces, the subtle technical wizardry, the scheming insistence on finding that one pass which unlocks glory.
MR: It appears David Accam is finally settling in, at least in terms of playing time. The Designated Player has only one goal so far this season in five appearances, but what could he bring to the team's attack as the year progresses?
HTOT: Accam has not shown that he's a great finisher, which is, in some ways, fortunate - if he could finish, he'd be gone in the summer window. Because, quite simply, Accam's cat-like quickness and intelligent sense of an opponent's vulnerability have unbalanced every MLS defense he's played against. The Ghanaian has drawn three red cards in the last five games, and it's not a fluke - his speed, even in a very athletic league like MLS, is kind of mind-blowing. Defenses seem to buckle under the anticipation of it, even when prepared. Maloney and Shipp have flourished by exploiting the space left behind in the wake of his supersonic runs. He's exciting to watch, but I doubt the folks in black and gold will find it a tremendous pleasure.
Questions for Massive Report
Hot Time in Old Town: I will cop to being skeptical about Kei Kamara as the answer as a No. 9 for the Crew, but 7 goals and 2 assists in 10 starts tell a happier story for the Black and Gold. What's been the key to getting such production out of a talented guy who always worked hard but didn't always put up many numbers?
Massive Report: You are not the only one who was skeptical on Kamara at first. When the Black and Gold signed him towards the end of last season, I didn't believe he would provide the impact he has because his most successful MLS years were playing on the right hand side of the field in Sporting Kansas City's three-pronged attack and not as the lone striker.
What has made Kamara work as the No. 9 is those around him. The combination of Kei, Justin Meram, and Ethan Finlay works wonders. As head coach Gregg Berhalter put it recently, they are three players that don't really make sense together, but when they're on the field, it just works. All of them have experience playing on the wings as well as up top, so their ability to alternate positions makes the Crew SC attack difficult to defend.
It also helps that Kamara is good in front of goal. Just look back at the last Columbus home game, where Kamara scored twice against the Seattle Sounders. The first was a cross from Waylon Francis that Kei beat Chad Marshall in the air for the goal and the second was a low cross from Hector Jimenez, which Kamara tucked away with one touch.
I really think the main answer is he loves to celebrate and the only way he gets to show off his creativity is to score. Call it internal motivation.
HTOT: Freestyle on Federico Higuain for a minute. You can go prose, blank verse, haiku, a series of palindrones, whatever, but communicate to us why he's great and how badly he's going to humiliate the Fire on Friday.
MR: Pipa how you flow
Up and down the field like so
Score, score, score 3-0
That was my best attempt at a haiku, but doesn't really answer your question (nor is that my score prediction, I just like rhymes).
Higuain is so much fun to watch when he's on his game. He moves all over the field to get the ball (sometimes to the confusion of his teammates) and when he gets it, he creates. Like all good creative playmakers, he sees things a step ahead of most of the other guys on the field. He's developed great chemistry with Finlay and Meram and knows where to get them the ball. He's developing this type of on-field relationship with Kamara as well, which is scary to think about.
His statistics aren't as good as they were a year ago because they haven't had to be. He's able to help put other guys in good positions, which opens space and sometimes leads to assists for other players. When needed, he has a scoring touch, but it hasn't been used too much this year.
After a poor performances last week at the San Jose Earthquakes, I think he'll be primed for a good game back at home on Friday night. When Crew SC come to Chicago in July, fans will better be able to see all he does on the field in person, as it doesn't always translate on TV.
HTOT: If I can bring the room down for just a minute, can we get an update on Wil Trapp's concussion problems? What do the Crew lose with a Tony Tchani-Mohammed Saied double pivot as opposed to the Tchani-Trapp partnership?
MR: Thank you for bringing things back down. I was concerned I couldn't keep it at that level for long.
Trapp's concussion issues have been strange. Initially he was listed as questionable with a leg injury, but apparently the concussion occurred at the same time (strange tackle was the explanation we were given). He was cleared and played a half against the Vancouver Whitecaps several weeks ago, but symptoms crept up during the match and he was substituted at halftime. From what I've heard, Trapp could be back in training in the next week or so, but is definitely out this match. Having talked to him a few times at training, he seems to be doing well, but Berhalter and his staff are obviously being careful with their young Homegrown midfielder.
When it comes to Saeid, Crew SC have lost very little on the field. The Swede demonstrated he's a quick learner, adapting to the demands of the holding midfielder in Columbus' system very quickly. He is a bit more physical than Trapp and still adjusting to MLS somewhat, but fans of the Black and Gold have debated whether Trapp's spot is guaranteed once he is fully healthy due to how well Saeid has played.
Unfortunately for Crew SC, but fortuitously for the Fire, Saeid picked up two yellow cards last week and will miss this match. The odds-on favorite to replace him is fourth-year player Kevan George, who mans the position for the reserve team. He should be able to fill in well, as he's a good ball winner and comfortable in possession in training, but this - assuming he starts - will be just his 10th start of his career.
If there's a time to attack the middle of Columbus' lineup, it is now with George taking over for this game.
HTOT: Bonus Whither Eddie Gaven?
MR: Man, you ask all the difficult questions. To be honest, no one knows. Gaven has always been quiet and private and even the players that were close with him don't hear from him all that much. The Gaven Question (where in the world is he?), is kind of an ongoing joke with Crew SC players, fans, and media, due to his abrupt and surprising retirement two years ago.
It's assumed he's living out his life post-soccer with his family, and from anything I've heard, enjoying it.