Phase One of Major League Soccer’s return to regular season play comes to a close on Saturday afternoon for the Chicago Fire, as they host Columbus Crew SC (2:30 p.m. CT | Univision, TUDN, Twitter).
It’s a rematch from the two sides’ Aug. 20 meeting, in which the Fire lost 3-0. It’s also a match immediately following the Fire’s first home loss in their new (but old) digs at Soldier Field. The motivation is plentiful for Raphael Wicky’s team to go and get a result against Caleb Porter’s Crew, who currently sit atop the Eastern Conference.
His performance against FC Cincinnati in the “Hell is Real” derby last Sunday was a shout to the rest of the league that he is hitting midseason form, and it is scary.
Even in scenarios in which he was off-balance, or a poor ball was played into his feet, or he was surrounded by three defenders - the ball remained glued to his feet and he refused to concede possession.
The two-time MLS Cup champion floated wherever he pleased on the pitch, Columbus adjusted to provide balance, and it was really a joy to watch. FCC hung in there for the first 45 minutes, but Nagbe and Columbus took control in the second half en route to a 3-0 win.
The key to disrupting Columbus is ensuring that their other players have to beat you. Make Youness Mokhtar, Pedro Santos, and Co. play-make and establish a rhythm.
In the previous meeting, Fire midfielder Gastón Giménez did a very good job dealing with Darlington, and has been Chicago’s most consistent performer throughout the 2020 season since he made his debut against New England back on March 7. If Chicago are to be victorious, he will need to be the one dictating rhythm and tempo, not being dictated by Nagbe.
The two games that Chicago have played at home had very different score lines but their performance and control over the 90 minutes was very much similar. The Fire outshot and dominated FC Cincinnati and the same can be said about New England this past weekend.
The early goal(s) against FCC gave them breathing room, forced the opposition to really open up the game (even if they were reluctant to do so), and the rest was history.
Against New England, we saw a mistake at the back in the opening minutes that led to a goal, and Chicago were then forced to chase the game. Despite getting an equalizer, the Fire were at risk for something wild - like a Teal Bunbury cross becoming a Teal Bunbury goal - to happen.
Getting an early goal may seem like a no-brainer, but it is particularly important against this Columbus side who is very much a rhythm group. They have scored seven goals in Phase One of the regular season’s return, six of which have come in the second half.
The Crew have so much experience, and are a group that usually grow into the game.
Also a little side note, Columbus are 0-1-1 on the road and have yet to score away from home since the restart. At MAPFRE Stadium, they are 3-0-0 with seven goals for and zero conceded.
If you remember back to the last time the Fire took on Columbus, it was a game of three waves. The initial wave came from the Crew as they controlled the first 20 minutes or so. After the opener from Derrick Etienne, it was Chicago who provided the next wave that lasted for about 50 minutes on either side of halftime.
Then it was a tsunami from Columbus in the form of Nagbe’s wonder-strike that killed Chicago’s momentum.
When the Fire were enjoying their share of the ball and control over the match, it was really fun to watch. The wingers were putting pressure on the outside backs - not allowing Milton Valenzuela and Harrison Afful to get forward. Nagbe was forced to do a lot of defending in addition, and the Fire generated some real chances.
Pressure applied by the Fire’s front four forced Columbus into some silly mistakes in the back that led to some of Chicago’s most threatening moves.
As we talked about at the top of the page, the motivation is there. Given the expanded playoff structure this season, a win would most likely catapult the Fire back into postseason positioning.
While 2020 hasn’t been recognizable, the parity in this league is still very much alive and anyone can win on any given day in MLS. It won’t be a fluke or one moment. It will need to be a focused, willed performance from the Fire if they are going to pull off a result at home. A win against first-place Columbus would go such a long way towards this team’s confidence, especially heading into the schedule’s next phase.