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Crew SC needs a win against a Chicago team in transition (literally and figuratively)

A first win of the season against a rival would do Columbus some good. Here are some matchups to look at when Crew SC takes on a new-look Chicago Fire team on Saturday.

Columbus defender Gaston Sauro stretches for a ball last week against Philadelphia. Crew SC travels to Chicago in Week 3.
Columbus defender Gaston Sauro stretches for a ball last week against Philadelphia. Crew SC travels to Chicago in Week 3.
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
Nobody wanted to be 0-2, but there's plenty of time for Columbus Crew SC to get where it needs to be. There is a tough schedule ahead, though, and Saturday provides an opportunity to get some much-needed early-season points when the Black & Gold travel to take on the Chicago Fire.

There's a little we know about the new-look Fire, and a lot we don't. Here are some things to keep an eye on when the two clash this weekend.

The things we know

There are a lot of questions about Chicago, but here are a few of the things we will most certainly see.

This will most certainly be a clash of styles. While Crew SC will look to possess and push high up the field, the Fire concede the majority of possession, are currently 19th out of 20 MLS teams (through two games) in pass completion percentage (68.4%) and love the long ball.

Chicago is all about the quick strike, and with a weapon like David Accam, there's good reason for that. Easily one of the fastest two or three players in the league, the Fire want to get the ball up the field in a hurry, with space for Accam to out-run defenders to the ball or dribble past a defender in a 1-v-1 situation. While Chicago is among the least pass-heavy teams in MLS, it is among the highest in terms of dribbles per game.

Because of that approach, there's not a lot of attacking build-up, and the majority of the shots come from inside the box — only 19 percent of the Fire's shots have come from outside 18 yards, the lowest in the league. That's because the whole point is to run by defenders, not shoot by them.

Chicago is also one of the most asymmetrical teams in the league in the early going, with 45 percent of its attacking play coming from the left side. It tends to bypass the midfield and therefore does a lot of passing in the back before getting the ball out to rookie left back (or wingback) Brandon Vincent. A look at the team's top players in terms of passing numbers is quite telling — it is dominated by center backs, defensive midfielder Matt Polster and Vincent.

Respect the speed

What you're about to see is pretty absurd.

Chicago will be happy to do that all day, and David Accam can do that all day. The Columbus defense will obviously be aware of the striker's ability, but it will have to make sure to respect it. The back line has to defend space, rather than trying to make lunging tackles, and it has to be very careful playing a high line or Accam will run in behind on the counter. The rest of the team will have to provide some pressure as well, because if the Fire defense and midfield is given the time to get their head up and play a targeted long ball, Accam will, eventually, get on to the end of one of them.

Three T's

Trapp and Tchani in transition.

Tony Tchani and Wil Trapp have had two pretty nondescript performances. If they want to make important contributions this week, the key will be strength in defensive transition and playing strong defense higher up the field.

Because of the way Chicago plays, there aren't going to be a ton of balls coming through the middle in Zone 14 (i.e., the attacking area of the middle of the field just above the penalty area). That's not to say there won't ever be, but that won't be the primary area of focus.

The Fire will look to get the ball down the field in a hurry. They have the most dribbles of any team in MLS through two games, and the most long balls. They are dead last in shots from outside the box (most of which would come from Zone 14). They purposely bypass that area of the field. So Trapp and Tchani will have to be aware of the Chicago counter and be prepared to pick up trailing runners. They'll also have to break up that counter higher up the field, and not allow those long balls to get played.

And in possession, turnovers are absolute anathema.


Coming back home


Crew SC are almost sure to face former homegrown goalkeeper Matt Lampson on Saturday. After being cast off as excess this past offseason, Lampson — who certainly has a place in the hearts of Columbus supporters, as a local product who was active in the community and inspired many with his battle with cancer — landed with the rivals to the north and, perhaps suprisingly, has snagged himself a starting job after barely seeing any first-team playing time with the Black & Gold. After relying on Sean Johnson for years, it appears the fringe USMNT player has fallen off a cliff, and/or a new coach has felt no allegiance to the old guard.

Lampson was, well, pretty bad in the season opener, but bounced back with a much stronger effort last week against Orlando. There's been some talk of whether Crew SC players have an advantage thanks to knowledge of Lampson's weaknesses, but I don't think there's much to that. Lampson, just as much, will know shooters' tendencies and tells. A bigger factor may be a desire to show his old club it made a mistake in letting him go, and wanting to play well in front of friends and family. Either way, I expect he'll receive a warm reception.

There's also a chance that former Crew SC defender Eric Gherig will be in uniform for Chicago, though he has not suited up yet in 2016 due to injury.


A bit of a mystery


There are a lot of things we're still learning about the Fire under new head coach Veljko Paunovic, who essentially overhauled the roster when he arrived, and with good reason.

Paunovic has already garnered some attention for his use of a three-man back line, something that we haven't seen much of in MLS. He used it in the preseason, and he used it last week against Orlando City. He has, however, also gone with a more common 4-2-3-1, so it's uncertain what he'll choose this Saturday against Columbus.

Here are some personnel considerations to keep in mind:
  • Right (wing)back Michael Harrington received a red card against Orlando and will be unavailable
  • Gherig, who can play fullback or center back, has not played yet due to injury. He is listed on the injury report, but is not ruled out.
  • Striker Gilberto picked up an injury in Week 1 and did not play in Week 2. He is listed on the injury report, but is not ruled out.
While Harrington may not have the full support of the Fire fan base, his absence does put a wrinkle into things. The primary backup (for the moment) is 20-year-old Brazilian Rodrigo Ramos, who has made two appearances off the bench this season. He's a bit of an unknown, but would seem like the kind of player who could develop into a regular starter. He has, however, just nine professional appearances coming into this season. (An added note, he joined Chicago on "lone" from Cortiba FC in his native country, according to his bio on the club's official website. Oops.)

Johan Kappelof, who joined the team this offseason as the highest-profile newcomer on the back line, can play right back, which he did after Harrington was sent off last week.

Those seem like the two likeliest possibilities, though midfielder Michael Stephens has gotten a look from Paunovic at the spot this week.

Gilberto's availability up top may affect what his team does as well. The team played with him as a lone No. 9 in a 4-2-3-1 in the opener, but played with two strikers up top in his absence in Week 2.

So what will Columbus face? Here's one possibility:

Columbus vs Chicago - Columbus Crew SC at Chicago Fire - 19th March 2016 - Football tactics and formations

The 3-5-2 seems like something Paunovic would like to make a regular part of Chicago's arsenal. It allows for flexibility and can stretch the width of the field while providing a lot of defensive support thanks to three center backs. Chicago would have to keep Kappelhof as a CB in this case, because they don't otherwise have the depth to play the formation.

When you consider that Columbus should boss possession and push the Fire back, it likely would look a lot more like a bunkered 5-3-2 in practice. Polster is the lone defensive mid in this setup, as Dutch newcomer John Goosens and Arturo Alvarez, also a new face (though an MLS veteran), have a more attacking bent.

The formation does have some holes Crew SC can attack, as long as it has good attacking movement. For one, there is only one wide defender on each side, which means that a combination of Ethan Finlay and Hector Jimenez (if we assume Gregg Berhalter will stick with him) along with the normal attacking contributions of fullbacks Harrison Afful and Waylon Francis can really overload those wide channels. This provides the ability to either overwhelm those wide attacking spaces or to pull the center backs out of shape and create space in the middle.

Kei Kamara's movement and aerial prowess will be key to testing the communication of the back three. Throw in Federico Higuain's penchant to pop up anywhere on the field, and there's the potential to create confusion along that back line, which can create space for a winger cutting inside or a trailing run from a defensive mid (especially if Pipa can drag Polster out of position).

The other option would likely be a 4-2-3-1, like the Fire played in the season opener. That would look something like this:

Columbus vs Chicago - Columbus Crew SC at Chicago Fire (Opt. 2) - 19th March 2016 - Football tactics and formations

If Gilberto is healthy, this formation allows Chicago to do two things — get all of its best attackers on the field, and also solidify its defensive balance across the field, providing more help in wide areas while likely putting an extra defensive midfielder in the center of the field, with Razvan Cocis more suited to that role than Goosens or Alvarez.

It could, however, allow Columbus to pin Accam and Igboananike back more with possession, and make it a little easier for Crew SC to get back to defend the counter attack.

The 4-2-3-1 might be the better option for Chicago in this instance, given the way Columbus attacks and the personnel the Fire have on hand. It's more balanced, likely puts more defensive-minded personnel on the field and provides clearer matchup roles. The 3-5-2 is designed to defend the center of the field well, and Crew SC may be able to exploit it with their wide play, though it also could be very difficult to break a 5-3-2 bunker.

No matter what Chicago runs out, it will provide the Black & Gold with a very good opportunity to get their first win of the season. Just the sheer amount of change for the Fire should put it at a disadvantage compared to the stability of Columbus, but Crew SC will need to put together a sharper performance than last week. Mistakes against Chicago will mean opportunities for Accam, and while the Fire struggled with finishing a year ago, they've also shown they can punish opponents at any time.

The defense, though, is another question, and with an almost assured advantage in possession, Columbus has to control the game and avoid getting stagnant off the ball, because this is a defense that, while it may have numbers, is still very much a work in progress.