There was a lot of fanfare surrounding the last matchup between the Columbus Crew and Chicago Fire. After all, it was the debut of new Black & Gold signing Cucho Hernández and featured a two-goal Columbus comeback, with Hernández putting the icing on the cake with a match-winning goal in the 83rd minute.
Since then, both teams have gone down different roads. On Saturday, the old Eastern Conference rivals meet once again at Lower.com Field.
To share more about the Fire’s trek, Massive Report spoke with Alex Calabrese from Hot Time in Old Town this week.
Massive Report: The Fire started the year off strong but it has ended up being a pretty up-and-down season. Chicago’s last four matches featured three losses and a scoreless draw. What’s changed about the Crew since the beginning of July when the two sides met?
Hot Time in Old Town: Ironically, that 3-2 loss to the Crew in July marked what appeared to be a turning point in the Fire’s season. A team meeting ahead of the next match sparked a turnaround that led the Fire to a five game unbeaten run, which included wins over Toronto, Seattle, Vancouver and Charlotte (with the last two being on the road).
However, as injuries pile up, the Fire have struggled to put anything together as they stumbled to losses to Philadelphia, New York City and Montréal. Those three games — against the top three teams in the Eastern Conference — seemingly took the wind out of the Fire’s sails, as they tumbled to 13th place despite being in 7th not too long ago.
MR: There’s a lot of congestion in the Eastern Conference, with Chicago still having a chance to get into the MLS Cup playoff conversation with six matches remaining. Has the ship completely sailed on the Fire’s 2022 season or have there been glimmers that Chicago can compete at a high level to end the season?
HTOT: Though it is still mathematically possible, the playoffs seem like a pipe dream for Chicago and any remaining hopes of reaching the postseason are fading fast. One would think that in order to make the playoffs at this point, the Fire would need to win the majority of their remaining games, and the final stretch involves difficult trips to Columbus, Montréal, and Cincinnati.
The staff hasn’t quite yet turned their attention to 2023, but it could be only a matter of time.
MR: The Crew is without fullback Pedro Santos and a likely absence for midfielder Lucas Zelarayán. Who’s going to be the names able to exploit their absences for the Fire?
HTOT: Xherdan Shaqiri and Chris Mueller are the two most natural attacking threats who could capitalize on the absence of Santos. While he hasn’t quite lived up to expectations, Shaqiri in particular has shown flashes of his world-class talent, even he has been able to stay healthy.
Homegrown attacking midfielder Brian Gutiérrez is another player who could pose a threat in the final third, as he has emerged this season. As for Zelarayán, the Fire are struggling for depth in defensive midfield with Gastón Giménez out for the year and Mauricio Pineda sustaining a minor injury. Fede Navarro will look to anchor the midfield as he continues a respectable season.