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Massive Scouting Report: Last hope for Crew SC vs. rival Fire

With the season on the line, Columbus hosts Chicago.

MLS: U.S. Open Cup-Columbus Crew SC at Chicago Fire Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

With the season on the brink, Columbus Crew SC welcomes rival Chicago Fire to MAPFRE Stadium.

It’s the first of back-to-back, home-and-away games between the two clubs, who have only met once this Major League Soccer regular season. That was a pretty awful scoreless draw in Week 3.

The two sides also met in the U.S. Open Cup, with the Fire grabbing two first-half goals and holding on for a 2-1 result that eliminated (again) Crew SC from the cup competition.

Now Chicago — the only team in the league with a worse record than Columbus — can eliminate the Black & Gold again, this time from posteason contention.

Here are some things to keep an eye on in Saturday’s game.

It’s come to this

A season of mostly disappointment has come down to a game against Columbus’ biggest rival. The Black & Gold are not yet mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, but they will be on Saturday if they lose. Well, OK, there are even scenarios that will save them there, it requires about 100 other teams also losing at the same time.

For posterity’s sake, you can read all MLS playoff scenarios here, and I present to you Columbus’ dire straits:

Columbus Crew SC will be eliminated from playoff contention IF

Columbus Crew SC lose vs. Chicago Fire on Saturday AND

Montreal Impact win or tie vs. Orlando City SC on Saturday AND

D.C. United win vs. Toronto FC on Saturday

OR

Columbus Crew SC lose vs. Chicago Fire on Saturday AND

New England Revolution win vs. Sporting Kansas City on Saturday AND

D.C. United win vs. Toronto FC on Saturday

OR

Columbus Crew SC tie vs. Chicago Fire on Saturday AND

Montreal Impact win vs. Orlando City SC on Saturday AND

D.C. United win vs. Toronto FC on Saturday

OR

Columbus Crew SC tie vs. Chicago Fire on Saturday AND

D.C. United win vs. Toronto FC on Saturday

New England Revolution win vs. Sporting Kansas City on Saturday AND

Montreal Impact tie vs. Orlando City SC on Saturday

Did you get all that? No? Well let’s keep it simple — Columbus better win.

The good news

Chicago is terrible on the road. Like, really terrible.

The Fire have won a single road game this season, and that was on Aug. 21 at the Montreal Impact.

That result snapped a 36-game road losing streak. In other words, the club hadn’t won on the road since 2014. Which is a long time. I mean, the last time Chicago had won on the road was the same day that Chivas USA did the same. So, yeah.

What to expect

The Fire have evolved a little since the last time Crew SC saw them. After some early-season experimentation with a 3-5-2 and related approaches the team has settled into a 4-2-3-1.

A midweek game always means there could be changes, but typically Chicago has run out Razvan Cocis and Matt Polster as the defensive midfielders and pivots in front of a four-man back line that has rotated a handful of players.

In the attack, designated player David Accam is a fixture on the left wing when healthy. He is the team’s gamebreaker thanks to his speed. There’s been some rotation in the center, with a few players who have fit into various roles in the attack, including Michael de Leeuw, John Goosens and Luis Solignac. MLS veteran Arturo Alvarez on the right wing. Newcomer David Arshakyan could be a factor at striker if Veljko Paunovic goes with some lineup rotation during a busy week.

Of course, Chicago has struggled to score goals, or even create chances. It averages 11.9 shots per game, which is second worst in MLS. It’s ranking is the same in expected goals, it’s third worst in actual goals and its goal differential is actually better than an expected projection — things could be even worse for the Fire.

Chicago’s approach is clear — sit deep and counter. The team leads MLS in counter-attack shots and counter-attack goals and is dead last in possession. Last week against Seattle it conceded 60.4 percent of possession. Expect the number to be similar this week.

This isn’t a team that’s going to build up the field. When it does get the ball back it’s firing it up the field, bypassing true midfield play. That’s something that hasn’t changed for the Fire, who are last in the league in passes per game but lead MLS in inaccurate long balls per game. Their passing percentage (74.3) is 19th out of 20 MLS teams (which didn’t seem to hurt D.C. United, which is last in MLS in that statistic).

The approach is to get the ball out to the fullbacks to push up the field wide or to Polster, who leads the team in touches. He then transitions the ball down field into the attack. He’s not flashy, but he’s one of the better young players in the league. Goosens leads the team in key passes per 96 minutes, with 2.28.

Want a visual of Chicago’s attacking woes? Here’s Solignac’s dashboard against Seattle at midweek while playing as the lone striker:

He did have two chances created, but he’s not typically getting the ball in dangerous positions. And no shots.

Here’s the bigger picture for the Fire:

Sitting deep and not connecting in the attacking third. It will probably be even deeper against a possession-heavy club like Columbus.

Defensive keys

Simple. Don’t get burned by Accam. That will be a test because Harrison Afful likes to get way up the field on that touchline, so Accam will likely have chances to get in behind. If Tony Tchani continue to play in a central "attacking" midfield role, his presence could help if he can bottle up Polster and Cocis in the midfield and prevent them from swinging the ball down the field for Accam.

On the other side, Alvarez likes the ball at his feet and will cut inside and allow the right back to overlap and cross the ball in.

With as much as the Black & Gold will be on the ball Saturday, they can’t afford to be lulled to sleep.

D-mid vs. D-mid

This isn’t a head-to-head battle (and that’s not a terrible pun, given Wil Trapp’s condition), but it is one to watch. Trapp and Polster are two players who are in the mix for the next generation of U.S. international defensive midfielders. It’s worth keeping an eye on their performances here as their careers continue to develop.

That attacking mid problem

It’s become clear at this point that Tchani is going to play as the high central midfielder in Gregg Berhalter’s 4-2-3-1 that might be a little more like a 4-3-3 with the way it’s currently being dispatched. That said, Tchani has spent plenty of time higher up the field.

When Crew SC has a little less of the ball and counters a little more (see the New England Revolution game) I wasn’t opposed to the setup. But last week against D.C. it just wasn’t really working. Unfortunately, Chicago sets up more like DCU than the Revs.

With Columbus destined to see about 60 percent of possession and generally play in Chicago’s end, will Tchani have the ability to help break down the defense?

We’ve seen how much CCSC can struggle with bunkering sides. It will need someone to make a play, get the first goal and open things up.