After dismantling bitter rivals FC Cincinnati 3-0 at home last weekend, Columbus Crew SC hits the road for the last matchup of Phase One of MLS’s return to play in 2020 to face the Chicago Fire at Soldier Field. While the two teams sit at opposite ends of the Eastern Conference standings, this matchup is still a tricky one for the Black & Gold. The Crew took care of Chicago in the two teams’ most recent matchup at MAPFRE stadium, but despite the 3-0 scoreline, the Fire did pose a threat at times to Columbus.
Let’s take a look at what Chicago brings to the table, and how the Crew can once again “put out the Fire.”
Chicago Fire at a Glance
Record: 2-6-2, 8 points
League Form: L-D-L-W-L
Leading Scorer: Fabian Herbers, Mauricio Pineda (2)
Assist Leader: Gastón Giménez(2)
Player to Watch: Gastón Giménez
Giménez has established himself for Chicago thus far in 2020. Pulling all the strings in the midfield, Gastón has proven himself not only as a key defensive asset but as an important piece of the Fire’s offense as well.
The 29-year-old Argentine joined the Fire this year after an extensive career in his home country, most recently with the popular Vélez Sarsfield. Known for his adept passing, Giménez is hugely important in helping Chicago circulate the ball, as well as playing precise passes forward to cause problems for opposing defenses. In the previous match against the Crew, Giménez was able to consistently find time on the ball in the midfield. This is certainly something that Crew head coach Caleb Porter will have recognized and hopefully tried to solve in the lead up to this match.
How Chicago Fire play:
Chicago head coach Raphael Wicky has a very distinct playing style. Before taking over the Fire, Wicky had an impressive career coaching Swiss superpower FC Basel and the United States Under-17 National Team. Despite this distinct system, Wicky has rotated the tactical setup for Chicago often this season. The Fire has set up in ma 3-5-2, 5-3-2, 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 formation at times this season.
While rotating the tactical lineup, the Fire playing style principles have remained the same. While in possession, the Fire prefers to have three players in the defensive line, five players in the midfield, including two wide players, and two strikers up top. Chicago looks to remain in possession of the ball before playing in behind the opposing defensive line. On defense, the Fire typically looks to press high up the field and try to “trap” the ball when it goes to their opponents’ outside backs. If Chicago’s opponent is able to break this pressure, they typically drop into a deeper defensive shape to force them backward and limit attacking opportunities.
How the Crew can win:
The Black & Gold are looking to continue to add to their league-leading points tally and build on their lead at the top of the MLS table. The Fire is desperate for points and may present a tricky test for the Crew on the road this Saturday afternoon. That being said, there are a few key points of emphasis that will help Columbus bring three points back to Ohio’s capital.
In these two sides’ previous matchup this year, Chicago did very well to play through the Crew’s midfield, especially in the first half. This is largely in part to the Fire’s numerical advantage in the center of the field when in possession. The Black & Gold typically set up in a 4-4-2 formation when the opponent has the ball. Contrarily, the Fire features more of a 3-5-2 formation when in possession, which is highlighted with three central players in midfield. Thus, the Crew is numerically down a man (3 v. 2) in the center of the midfield.
A player with the quality of Giménez can cause all sorts of problems with the time on the ball and space that a man advantage can provide. No doubt Porter and his staff and have surely identified this as a key point for this matchup. It will be interesting to see how the Crew chose to solve this issue to try and create more 3 v. 3 situations in central midfield. One option is to drop a player off of the frontline defensively or line up in a 4-5-1 of sorts.
If Porter is unwilling to do this, the next best way to solve this issue is to involve the Crew wingers in the midfield. This is typically done when the ball goes to a particular side and the opposite side winger will then rotate into the central midfield to help defensively. For example, if the ball went to the left side of the midfield, Columbus’ right-sided winger would slide into central midfield to pick up the extra man, and vice versa. Porter could also choose to do neither of these and employ something completely different, or potentially allow the man advantage with the hope of winning the ball and quickly being able to counterattack the Fire. Regardless, the Crew’s performance in the midfield defensively will be a huge indicator in how this game goes.
Another key for the Black & Gold on Saturday afternoon will be the “transition moments” that will no doubt occur. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the Crew is one of the best teams in transition in the MLS. Furthermore, Columbus killed the Fire in attacking transition in the previous matchup, with all three goals coming in these moments.
Thus far in 2020, the Fire has been unwilling to sit in a low block defensively, thus, when the Fire moves up the field there, will be loads of space behind the defense for the Crew to attack. It is worth noting that the Fire could opt to sit in a low block (“park the bus”) given some of the Crew’s struggles against that strategy in 2020 and the Black & Gold’s dominance over Chicago in transition moments in the first meeting. However, nothing in Wicky’s past or the Fire’s strategy thus far in 2020 would suggest that as a strong possibility.
It is no doubt that Columbus and Chicago are experiencing very different years in 2020. However, the Fire is capable of at least asking some questions of the Crew this Saturday. If the Black & Gold are able to extinguish the Fire’s advantage in midfield (pun intended) and capitalize on the transition moments that they will likely find, the Crew will have no problem taking three points and remaining at the top of the MLS table.