A three-game winning streak no more.
Columbus Crew SC went to Toyota Park Saturday afternoon in hopes of extending a run of positive results from the last few weeks. But with key pieces out and a different approach, it was not to be as the Black & Gold fell to the Chicago Fire by a 1-0 scoreline.
It was a discombobulated start for a Crew SC side that had to adjust with no creative presence from Federico Higuain in the center of the park. Chicago meanwhile settled in and looked to exploit its speed up top.
The Fire created opportunities early through forwards Nemanja Nikolic and David Accam. Hector Jimenez, who started over the injured Harrison Afful at right fullback, had to head away a cross at the back post that seemed destined for Accam and goalkeeper Zack Steffen came up big to deny a Nikolic header inside the six-yard box.
The forward would not be denied in the 22nd minute when he got in between Jimenez and center-back Alex Crognale. Midfielder Dax McCarty played a beautiful through ball that found Nikolic in the 18-yard box. His low shot slid under Steffen to give Chicago an early 1-0 advantage.
Following the goal, the Fire kept five men along the backline, making an already tough task for the Black & Gold that much more difficult.
The second half brought no tactical changes initially, but Columbus was able to press forward as Chicago became content to sit back and look for chances on the counter.
Crew SC managed much more possession in the attacking half, but struggled to create any decent attempts on goal early in the second 45 minutes.
A switch by head coach Gregg Berhalter, bringing in winger Niko Hansen for Mohammed Abu, allowed Justin Meram to tuck inside and play underneath forward Ola Kamara.
In a more free role, Meram roamed and delivered a cross from the right side that found Crognale in the 18-yard box. The rookie defender’s header was over the net, but chances were coming.
Hansen almost found the equalizer for the Black & Gold in the 70th minute after a Jukka Raitala cross reached him the box. He managed to get a shot off, but it was saved by Jorge Bava.
The Fire should have double the lead in the 81st minute when Daniel Johnson got free behind the backline and curled a shot by an out-rushing Steffen. Defender Nicolai Naess didn’t give up on the play, clearing the ball off the goal line.
Columbus had one final chance from second half substitute Adam Jahn before the final whistle blew, but his shot from a tough angle was stopped by Bava.
With Federico Higuain not available, Crew SC shifted into a 4-3-3 formation, playing wingers Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay wide and high and tucking the full backs in.
The idea was to dominate the midfield with more numbers, as the Fire played just two — albeit good — players in the center of the park.
It took time for the Black & Gold to settle into this new look. Passes went awry, players were not where teammates expected and in the end it was the first loss in four weeks.
The team settled in some in the second half, especially once it shifted back to its normal 4-4-1-1 formation, but the offense wasn’t able to capitalize on the chances created.
Rookie center-back Alex Crognale has been outstanding for Columbus over his first three matches. His college teammate, Zack Steffen, has been a great shot stopper in his first season as Crew SC’s starting goalkeeper.
However, both players had moments in this match to remind fans that they are both still 22 years old.
On Chicago’s goal, a through ball seemed to catch Crognale napping a bit as he shifted both late and slowly giving time for Nemanja Nikolic to uncork his shot. Steffen, who had already denied the forward from close range, did not get down quick enough to stop the shot.
Both players had more positive moments in this match as well — Steffen’s diving save on Bastian Schweinsteiger’s free kick comes to mind — and continue to show promise, but mistakes like this will happen from time to time, especially with young players.
Chicago (Bridgeview) strikes again
For whatever reason, Crew SC struggle when playing the Fire on the road. The Black & Gold are now 6-15-10 playing in Chicago (or the surrounding area) in MLS play.
What was once an intimidating place to play no longer is. The 16,434 fans at Toyota Park created a decent atmosphere, but nothing this team hasn’t seen before. The wind coming through the stadium may have played a part in the second half, but not enough to make a difference.
There’s something about road games against the Fire that just don’t mix well with black and gold.
Crew SC is back at home next weekend as Toronto FC comes to town.
Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Sebastian Giovinco and company sit on an unbeaten 1-0-3 record entering Saturday’s slate of matches. The Reds will kickoff against Atlanta United at home at 6:30 p.m.