Ahhhh the return to club play…
International breaks are always tough to get through, even with tournaments like the Euros and Copa América taking place.
They are fun to watch and give you a lot of football to consume, but it’s not YOUR team.
Finally, we get back to some Chicago Fire football after they had a long three weeks to think about that gut-wrenching loss to Montreal.
Here’s what to look for as the Fire travel to Columbus in what will be the final game at Historic Crew Stadium.
GETTING BACK TO NEUTRAL (AND BEYOND)
Columbus’ CONCACAF Champions League run ended about five weeks ago in the quarterfinals against Monterrey in disappointing fashion. They managed a 2-2 draw at home in the first leg, but lost the second 3-0 in Mexico, a 5-2 defeat on aggregate.
We’ve talked before about the difficulty for teams to balance league and cup play, especially given the financial restrictions in MLS.
With that said, Columbus has done a very good job of getting back on track, having gone 3-2-0 since their exit of the competition. Their last two MLS games, against NYCFC and Toronto, were both wins.
To put it in perspective, Toronto, who also lost in the CCL quarterfinals, have gone 1-1-3 in the same span – which includes a win and a loss against Columbus.
This is obviously not an exact science and two very different clubs. Getting back to a spot of proper fitness and days off for a team that was playing two games a week in an intense international competition is difficult.
CHAMPIONS AND THEN SOME
This is the first time the Fire will be taking on the reigning MLS Cup champions in 2021. Caleb Porter’s side looks very similar, with some new toys to help them try and repeat.
The Crew still line up in the very efficient and organized 4-2-3-1 that revolves around the movement and quality of Darlington Nagbe and Lucas Zelarayán.
Nagbe sets the tempo and establishes the rhythm, while Zelarayán provides the sauce in the attacking third.
Artur is the piano lifter and allows Nagbe to play his sweet music.
Forward Gyasi Zardes has yet to really find his finishing boots in MLS play with just one goal, but Zelarayán has been picking up the slack with three goals already.
In the back, Jonathan Mensah is coming off of one of his best seasons in MLS, and Vito Wormgoor is finally healthy and fit.
Harrison Afful is an incredibly steady right full-back, and Santos provides a lot of quality at left-back.
We saw the blistering pace of Luis Diaz on display a few weeks ago, and Derrick Etienne is a nice compliment with a few tricks up his sleeve and the quality to finish off moves as we saw in MLS Cup last year.
They’ve added Alexandru Mățan for reinforcements in the middle of the field, and picked up a dangerous MLS vet in Kevin Molino. However, Molino has been hampered by injury and has yet to make an appearance.
On the road, in the final game at Historic Crew Stadium, you can bet Columbus will be on the ball and the Fire will be doing some chasing.
Last year the Fire lost on the road and drew the Crew at home. They should’ve won at Soldier Field against an under-manned Crew XI, but it was one of those games in which they simply couldn’t put the game away despite a plethora of chances.
The Fire have proven they can hang with the reigning champs, and both teams' styles and set up can actually be pretty similar at times.
Winning the midfield (or at least trying to contain Nagbe and Zelarayán) is the key to competing with the Crew. This requires a tremendous amount of discipline defensively and taking care of the football once you’ve won it back because Porter’s group will make you defend for long stretches.
The Fire’s formation that they’ve been using with a single No. 6 and two 8/10s (depending on how you view it) has been working. Fabian Herbers’ movement off the ball stretches the defense and creates space for others, and his defensive work rate is nothing to sneer at either.
The Fire will have chances given the set-up of Columbus and how many numbers they throw forward. It’s no secret that Wicky’s bunch haven’t been banging in goals left and right. If there were ever a time to find their finishing touch again, it would be against a Columbus side who are undoubtedly going to put you under a lot of pressure.
Enjoy the return of CFFC after a three-week international hiatus. Oh, and by the way, enjoy the velvet pipes of the voice of the Premier League on NBC, Arlo White. I hear that dude is pretty decent at calling a football match.
I’ll see you guys back at Soldier Field next Wednesday reporting from the sidelines.