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Massive Scouting Report: Crew SC, Chicago ready for fresh start in opener

Two rivals see who has improved most as Columbus hosts the Fire to open MLS season

MLS: New England Revolution at Columbus Crew SC
Ola Kamara and Columbus Crew SC open the 2017 MLS season Saturday hosting rival Chicago Fire.
Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

We’re back, baby!

Merry Crewsmas, as we celebrate the start of the 2017 Major League Soccer season and a fresh start for Columbus Crew SC. It’s time to put 2016 behind us, right?

The Black & Gold open the new campaign at MAPFRE Stadium on Saturday at 2 p.m. against another team looking to put last year (well, the past few years, TBH) behind it as well, rival Chicago Fire.

The reality is that it’s all questions and best guesses to start the season, because who knows (and because this is MLS, where the expected is always a waste of breath). But here are a few things to keep an eye on in Saturday’s season opener.

Let us know what you’re looking forward to seeing in the comments section below.

(NOTE: This preview was written before the news broke that Chicago midfielder Juninho will be suspended for the game.)

Starting off hot

And that’s not just the first of many puns to come in 2017.

What better way to begin the season than two rivals, both of which have “DID NOT QUALIFY” under last year’s postseason status?

That creates a situation where getting off to a good start is important for both clubs. Neither side wants to dig a hole that’s too big to crawl out of again, and some early confidence would be something to build on. Not to mention it would build early support from fans who likely won’t have a ton of patience this season.

Areas of improvement

The list of areas where the Fire fell short the last couple of years is long — the defense wasn’t good enough, the midfield had no ability to put its imprint on the game and the attack was lacking beyond David Accam’s legs.

There’s reason to believe some of that will be better. It starts with the addition of central midfielders Dax McCarty and Juninho. The latter is a couple of years removed from his last appearance in MLS, but we know what kind of player he is. And the pair would seem to make Chicago’s midfield smarter, steadier and stouter. Those guys alone should help the Fire’s defense improve simply because it won’t face a constant, all-out assault. But both are capable of going box to box and providing energy both ways, and if you’ve forgotten Juninho’s love for bombing a shot on goal from outside the penalty area, let’s hope the Columbus back line (and defensive midfielders) have not.

We know those two guys make Chicago better. The attack is more of a question mark, but has been bolstered. Accam is still there, Michael du Leeuw now has MLS experience and newcomer Nemanja Nikolic has scored everywhere he’s been. The question is how that translates to this league.

And behind it all, Veljko Paunovic now has a year as an MLS coach toe glean lessons from.

Crew changes

For the first time we’ll get to see — and begin to assess how and if the changes the Black & Gold made in the offseason make them immediately better.

Of course, we still don’t know exactly what that will look like in Game 1. There’s been some buzz about a three-man back line, but I’d expect, at least initially, that Gregg Berhalter returns to his tried-and-true 4-2-3-1.

Expect to see three changes to that setup. No. 1, the insertion of Designated Player Jonathan Mensah at centerback, Jukka Raitala (though it bears watching whether Waylon Francis can win back his job here) at left back and one of the deep-lying midfield spots.

The pairing of Mensah (or Jonathan, if you prefer) with Nicolai Naess, who himself now has a partial season of MLS to lean on, is the great hope for the Crew SC defense. Expectations should be kept in context, as Berhalter’s system always asks a ton of his center-back pairing, but improvement here is needed and very much expected.

The biggest thing to keep an eye on, though, might be who pairs up with Wil Trapp, who we can expect to hold down his starting job as team captain. Will Tony Tchani be able to regain favor after a down year? Will Mohammed Abu make his impact felt? It seems unlikely that Artur has a role early in the season, but he may be a factor later.

And if Abu is the guy, exactly what role does he play? Does Trapp’s role get tweaked at all? Can Trapp get back on trap after an inconsistent 2016 saw his career development stall out just a little bit.

The center of midfield NEEDS to be better in 2017, both in shielding a back line that needs help and in transitioning the team forward.

Finishing

We should expect some attacking bounceback from Columbus. In simplest terms, we have seen this attacking group perform and we know it’s better than what we saw a year ago. But from an analytical standpoint, the underlying numbers show that Crew SC underachieved in 2016 in terms of putting chances in the back of the net. So that indicates an uptick, even if not to the point we saw two years ago (that’s unlikely, so don’t expect it).

A healthy and seemingly renewed Federico Higuain helps that cause as well.

All eyes will be on the attack as fans wait for all that to bear fruit. Last year saw numerous botched chances, especially early in the season. Seeing a few of those good looks hit the back of the net early will make everyone feel a little bit better.

Matchups

What does Columbus have to watch out for on Saturday?

Accam, to start. It’s unclear whether Chicago will embrace the counter-attacking ways of recent history (though “embrace” might be less accurate than “forced into”). That’s an approach that lets Accam get into space behind the defense, but he’s dangerous enough to be a threat regardless of team approach.

It’s likely he’ll be lined up on the left, where Harrison Afful’s propensity for getting way up into the attack may create plenty of space for Accam to get into. How the Black & Gold handle this will be important.

The other side of the field will likely see Arturo Alvarez as a guy the Fire get on the ball and push attack through, and de Leeuw is more of a shadow striker, so Crew SC will have to be able to handle those two guys getting on the ball in the attacking third.

And, as mentioned before, be aware of trailing runners from midfield to the top of the box with Juninho and McCarty.

Those things will be early tests for whatever defensive midfield pairing Columbus goes with, as well as the budding relationship between the two Crew SC center backs.

On the flip side, there should be opportunities for the Black & Gold attack against Chicago defense that still has some issues, and which is still working out how to communicate and play with the D-mids.

Get to know the teams

You can read more about both teams in the SB Nation MLS team previews. Check out Chicago’s and Columbus’.

One last thing...

Who’s starting the Ola Golden Boot watch?