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A unique home-and-home week for Crew SC and Chicago

Columbus will face the rival Fire twice this week — once on the road and once at home — with both teams desperately trying to find their footing in the Eastern Conference race. These are some things to keep an eye on in this Midwestern battle.

Midwestern rivals will clash twice this week as Columbus and Chicago duel.
Midwestern rivals will clash twice this week as Columbus and Chicago duel.
Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Columbus Crew SC fans probably remember the season's first matchup with rival Chicago Fire all too well. That one where the Black & Gold controlled the match, took a 2-0 lead and suddenly drowned under a tidal wave that saw Jason Johnson eke out a draw for the visiting Fire with an injury-time goal.

Well, Johnson is fresh off another injury-time goal, this one a winner against the Seattle Sounders that ended a pretty dreadful stretch of games for Chicago. Certainly it will want to keep that going.

As the two Midwestern rivals face each other twice in the matter of days, here's a look at what the keys will be to the pair of matches for Crew SC.

What are your thoughts and concerns ahead of the matches? Let us know in the comments below.

Which team will handle its roster best?

The Fire are facing a busy and important stretch of games as the two teams play home-and-home in a two-game week before Chicago sees another quick turnaround for a U.S. Open Cup game. It will undoubtedly be rotating its roster in some fashion, and the Black & Gold will not see the same starting 11 twice.

Not to mention, the Fire have been ravaged by injuries and will look a little different than the last time the two teams played. Designated player and playmaker Shaun Maloney is out, as is fellow DP David Accam, Guly Do Prado and captain Jeff Larentowicz.

That's a lot of key faces. Maloney took a while to settle in to MLS, but he has been one of the best players in the league in chance creation, while Accam puts a lot of pressure on defenses with his speed. Larentowicz leaves a hole at center back that Eric Gehrig — who assisted on the game-tying goal last time around — has slid into the middle to fill, leaving less experienced players filling his role at fullback.

Columbus has to take advantage of those absences, but it also has to manage its own roster well. The last time Gregg Berhalter rotated his roster during a two-game week it was mostly disastrous, both on and off the field, as the team's lack of depth was revealed and Emanuel Pogatetz lost his mind on Facebook.

Can Crew SC's struggles with depth handle back-to-back games like this?

Show some spine

There have to be some questions about the mental state of this team. Although the Black & Gold had found a way to finally stop allowing a first-goal deficit to be a death knell, the team's play on the road, it's damning mistakes and the general inconsistency might leave one wondering about the club's mental approach.

It's also quite possible that Columbus is in for a physical battle, which is what it got in the first installment of the rivalry this season. Physicality does not necessarily suit Crew SC.

The team has to find a way to toughen up, both mentally and physically.

Do well with the ball, move without it

In general, Columbus has created chances. When it has been efficient, it has done well, but the defense has been too unsteady to preserve victories when the attack isn't clicking 100 percent. This week the Black & Gold are going to face two banks of four — that's a given, regardless of what the personnel looks like. They traditionally haven't done well breaking down that type of defensive approach, but they're going to have to.

Federico Higuain will have to be a creative spark, and he'll need help from the rest of his midfielders. Chicago midfielders Razvan Cocis and Matt Polster will muck things up, so others — whether its Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay cutting in from the outside or Tony Tchani/Mohamed Saeid/Will Trapp making late runs in the middle — to occupy those two and free up space for Pipa to operate.

The biggest priority has to be moving without the ball. Last week we saw how difficult it is to create good chances with stagnant movement. When the Montreal Impact took away Kei Kamara, there was nowhere else to go with the ball. There has to be better movement to either draw defenders or offer outlets.

The Mike Magee factor

Magee is finally healthy for the Fire. The one-time MVP got his first start of the season last week, and certainly will be a welcome boost for Chicago. He's a proven goalscorer with a high soccer IQ and good movement. Kennedy Igboananike and Do Prado are the definition of non-clinical strikers, so even though the Fire tend to create a lot of chances, they haven't done well with many of them. Magee could help in that department.

And when we talk about forwards with intelligent movement, well, that's a pending disaster for a Crew SC back line who too often has had miscommunications or momentary mental lapses. The Fire will build with Harry Shipp — the straw that stirs the drink — cutting in from the wing and right back Lovel Palmer bombing down the touchline and whipping in crosses, but both will be looking for Magee.

Crew SC personnel questions

Hector Jimenez left the weekend's game with back spasms and is listed as questionable, though the team says he is fine. Chris Klute started against Chicago in the first meeting and was quite solid on defense. Whether Jimenez — who has quietly been one of the leagues best in chances created per 90 minutes — is healthy or not, and whether Berhalter goes with his chance creation versus Klute's defense will be key in handling Shipp (try to protect against him or try to pin him?).

After Will Trapp played 45 minutes on Saturday and looked very comfortable, will he be ready for a full 90? His presence would make a huge difference.

And will we finally see Cedrick on the field? He's with the team and provides an intriguing wild card, should he make his MLS debut. With a lot of disappointment after the last result and the dissolution of an apparent loan for Brazilian fullback Zeca, seeing Columbus' one summer acquisition making a contribution would be a welcome sight.