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Predicted XI: Chicago Fire

As Cucho Hernandez is integrated into the team, who starts for the Black & Gold Saturday night in Chicago?

MLS: Chicago Fire at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday night rings in the Cucho Hernandez era for the Columbus Crew. The young Colombian striker is available for the first time as the Black & Gold travel to Soldier Field to take on the Chicago Fire.

Hernandez’s debut comes at a great time for the Crew as Columbus is currently the proud owner of a five-game unbeaten streak that includes two away wins. The Fire provides a great opportunity to keep that unbeaten streak alive, as Chicago sits tied at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, taking only 17 points from the team’s first 18 matches of the 2022 season.

While Hernandez will slowly be integrated into the squad, head coach Caleb Porter will still have the most players available to him for selection in over at least one month. Thursday’s injury report featured only two individuals who still remain questionable, midfielder Artur (right lower leg) and fullback Marlon Hairston (right thigh). However, although Artur is listed as questionable, Porter stated on Friday that the Brazilian is still about two-three weeks from returning to on-field action.

In addition to Artur and Hairston, according to Massive Report’s Patrick Murphy, Milos Degenek picked up a knock late in the week and is not expected to feature in Saturday’s match.

With almost the entire first team roster at his disposal, here is who Massive Report believes Porter will select for his starting XI on Saturday night in Chicago:

Match to match, the starting 11 is completely contingent on the formation Porter feels is best suited for that particular opponent. In his press conference Friday, Porter made it clear that he loves the idea of opponents having to prepare for multiple formations when they play the Crew, whether it be a 3-5-2, which has been very effective as of late, a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1, Porter’s usual bread and butter.

Expect Porter to choose to run out a 3-5-2 once again, as the most important objective for the Black & Gold is to get another result on the road. The 3-5-2 formation gives Columbus the best chance to do just that, as the easiest way to earn a result is to not give up any goals. With a three-man back line and Zawadzki playing at defensive midfielder, expect the Crew to be incredibly hard to break down as the team has been in recent matches.

As eluded to above, Hernandez will not feature in the starting 11 Saturday night, as Porter has made it very clear that he will slowly integrate the club-record signing into the lineup. Porter stated that Hernandez will play a maximum of 20-30 minutes in Chicago, and slowly ramp up as the season progresses.

Given that Hernandez will not be starting up top, expect Jacen Russell-Rowe to get the starting nod once again at forward. The young Canadian has played well in back-to-back starts and even with Erik Hurtado fully healthy, Russell-Rowe has played well enough in his two starts to get an extended run with the first team. As a side note, as Russell-Rowe takes some of Hurtado’s minutes, it is clear there are no hard feelings, as Hurtado went to bat for the 19-year-old against Philadelphia, earning a yellow card in a scuffle after Russell-Rowe was hip-checked into the field barrier.

Lastly, expect Jalil Anibaba to slide into Degenek’s position as the third center back, with Degenek now likely out as a late scratch.