Defending on the road has not been a problem for Columbus Crew SC in 2018. Set to play its sixth match of the season against the Chicago Fire in Bridgeview this Saturday, the Black & Gold are the only team in the entire league which is yet to concede a goal when playing as a visitor – FC Dallas hasn’t play any road matches so far.
A couple of solid defensive performances granted Crew SC a season-opening 2-0 win over defending champions Toronto FC and a valuable road point in a scoreless draw against the Philadelphia Union two weeks later.
“We’ve been good in that respect,” head coach Gregg Berhalter said. “We’ve been giving up very few chances away from home. The collective defense has been really good. It’s a group mindset of getting behind the ball, getting good shape and being difficult to break down.”
The Black & Gold are undefeated in regular season matches on the road since Aug. 5 2017, when they lost to the San Jose Earthquakes 2-1. The team has two wins and four ties on its last six matches away from Central Ohio.
As it happens every week in MLS, Crew SC’s defense will have to adjust to a different opponent in Week 6. Last weekend, the team tried to match up with the physicality of the Vancouver Whitecaps at MAPFRE Stadium, and that did not go well. Now they will have a different kind of team to stop.
“They are pretty good running behind the lines,” Berhalter commented about Chicago. “They are also good on crossings, they put a lot of balls inside the penalty box. We’ll have to be aware on those situations. Chicago has good quality and they will want to get a result in this game, so it will be a difficult match.”
Last year, the only time the Crew played the Fire was on the road. The result, a 1-0 defeat. But it will actually be a different Chicago group now, as the team has gone through some important changes on its offensive system. The major of them was the departure of Ghanaian winger David Accam, who was traded to the Philadelphia Union during the offseason.
With his pace, ball control and finishing skills, Accam was one of the main pieces of a Fire team that managed to return to the playoffs after a four-year absence in 2017. He ended the season with 14 goals, one of them against Crew SC, and eight assists.
“A guy like him brings a lot of versatility, pace and goal scoring,” center back Jonathan Mensah said about his compatriot. “He was one of the most dangerous players of their team. I know they signed another winger, but it’s not the same as with Accam. We need to be prepared to deal with whoever they put on the field.”
If Accam won’t be a threat this time, Nemanja Nikolic will probably be a player Crew SC will try to keep track of during every minute of the game. The Serbian striker was the top goal scorer of the 2017 MLS season with 24 goals and started 2018 in good form, scoring half of Chicago’s six goals in three matches.
After playing the European striker three times last year, Jonathan knows his style better and is aware of what needs to be done to prevent him from having a prolific night against Crew SC.
“It’s staying focused and playing hard against him,” Jonathan advised. “He’s very clever around and inside the box, so you need to be vigilant all the time. He’s always peeling away from defenders, so you need to have contact with him and make sure he doesn’t get to the ball fast. We need to do it as a defensive team, not individually.”
One of the anchors of Crew SC’s backline in 2018, the two-time World Cup veteran believes the team’s defensive efficiency can still get better. After a few defensive mistakes against the Whitecaps last week, a third consecutive road shutout would be more than welcome to the team’s back line.
“We have to clean up some pieces as a team defensively and we can defend better than we did so far, so we just keep working,” Jonathan added. “We know we are going to play against a very good team, so we need to be 100 percent focused to keep getting good results on the road. We study every opponent and will set a strategy that hopefully works and gets us our second road victory.”