The Fire play the Columbus Crew at Soldier Field on Saturday, capping off the busiest stretch of the season for the hosts – one that saw them play 11 matches in 35 days.
The game comes after an unceremonious exit from the U.S. Open Cup for the Fire, who can now focus entirely on their league campaign and is the last match before a welcome 11-day break for the Fire and a weeklong break for the Crew.
Both teams will be looking to leave Soldier Field on a high note: Three points on Saturday would return the Fire to the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race, while a win would be a third in a row for the Fire’s oldest rival, marking a welcome return to consistency for a team that many have picked to make waves in the Eastern Conference this season.
All time: 27W-23D-23L, 96 GF/ 110 GA, 104 pts out of 213
Last Match: September 3, 2022: Columbus 0-0 Fire at Lower.com Field, Columbus, Oh.
Record: 7W-3D-6L (24 pts)
The Crew have won their two most recent games against Charlotte and Colorado, both at home. They are rested, having last played on Saturday having exited the U.S. Open Cup in late May. The Crew have lost their last three games away, including a 1-0 loss to the lower-division Pittsburgh Riverhounds in the U.S. Open Cup.
Record: 3W-8D-5L (17 pts)
The Fire were booted from U.S. Open Cup play thanks to a 4-1 defeat to the Houston Dynamo on Tuesday. Although questionable referee decisions were a factor, the Fire didn’t look dangerous despite dominating possession throughout the match. Prior to that, a heavily rotated squad held on to a 0-0 draw in Cincinnati before finally succumbing to a 1-0 loss thanks to a Lucho Acosta goal in the 83’.
Sometimes the best way to get over a bad loss is to turn the page and play another game. That’s the situation the Fire find themselves in following their U.S. Open Cup loss Tuesday at SeatGeek Stadium – the first time that the team had lost at “home” (if SeatGeek is the team’s home) all season across all competitions.
The match marks the halfway point in the season for both clubs, and results are finally starting to create separation between those in control of their destiny, those battling for a playoff spot, and those falling behind.
The Columbus Crew are looking to solidify their place amongst the teams firmly in control of their own destiny as they look to string together their second three-game winning streak in the standings. A win, along with favorable results, could put them as high as fourth and in the thick of the pack of teams duking it out for the playoff spots behind cross-state rivals Cincinnati, who are currently eight points ahead of second-place Nashville in both the conference standings and Supporter’s Shield race.
The Fire, meanwhile, currently in 14th place in the Eastern Conference – ahead only of Inter Miami, who are planning some roster tweaks that you might have heard a little something about – are looking to push themselves back into the camp of teams firmly in the hunt for a playoff spot. They’re currently four points out of 9th place Charlotte in the expanded playoff field, so a victory and the three points that come with it are essential if the team wants to head into an 11-day break in a position to climb the standings with their heads held high.
The Fire have talked about the importance of progress. Last year, after 17 games, the team had 17 points, so the team must get a result against Columbus, their oldest rival, if they want to improve on last year’s mark going into the second half of the season.
Tactics and Projected Starting Lineups
OUT: Milos Degenek, Will Sands, Gustavo Vallecilla, Josh Williams
QUESTIONABLE: Luis Diaz, Alex Matan, Kevin Molino, Eloy Room
The biggest signing in MLS this year will be Lionel Messi. Full stop. But the second biggest? It may well turn out to be the Crew luring Wilfried Nancy from CF Montréal, a club where he was still under contract.
Although the Crew haven’t dominated the league since Nancy took over, they’re in the thick of an Eastern Conference playoff spot (currently in sixth place, three points back of fourth) and have been playing a similar style to what we saw from Nancy’s team in Montréal last year.
It’s a possession-oriented brand of soccer, where his Crew look to lure teams in on possession and use long passes to exploit the holes created as opposing players move in on the guy with the ball. More than any tactics, though, Nancy seems to imbue his team with an attitude, saying that he wants the team to play bravely.
Their attacks normally start out of the back, with the backs absorbing pressure as they encourage teams to approach them, trusting that the back can absorb pressure from the ensuing press and create time for players further up the field to find space and get behind (or between) lines. The team will continue to cycle passes and build through possession until they see the time and space to strike.
The result? Columbus leads the league, having scored 33 goals in 16 games – playing with largely the same squad as 2022 when Columbus scored just 46 goals through 34 games (DP striker #9 Cucho joined the team midway through last season).
Formation-wise, Nancy’s squad normally lines up in a 3-4-2-1, and much of the team’s offense ends up flowing through the two attacking midfielders, #10 Lucas Zelarayán, the team’s leading scorer with seven goals and seven assists this season, and #17 Christian Ramírez with five goals and an assist.
Out: Chris Mueller, Carlos Terán
The Fire’s infirmary is finally clearing out, though the season-ending injury to Chris Mueller and Carlos Terán continue to limit Fire Head Coach Frank Klopas’s options. He does have a number of options to explore with formations, however.
The team lined up with five players in the back line last week against Cincinnati, though in practice, the difference between a five and three-man backline is often more one of perspective and phase of the game – a 3-4-2-1 as the team has played several times under Klopas effectively becomes a 5-2-2-1 in defense. Here’s the thing: When the team first started playing with a three-man backline under Klopas, it looked revelatory, as both Brian Gutiérrez and Xherdan Shaqiri could be on the pitch at the same time playing in something resembling a #10 attacking midfield role.
Since then, however, the results have been increasingly uninspiring. Part of the reason that Klopas stuck with a three-man back line may have been a necessity – it’s hard to play four in the back line with one healthy center back – but regardless, this is a match that calls for the team to revert to a four-deep back line.
Formations are just a starting point, and Klopas doesn’t have to use the same tactics as Ezra even if the formation is the same, but regardless, since the team’s better suited to a 4-2-3-1 than a 4-3-3 (particularly with Mueller out), that’s what Klopas should play against Columbus, a team that likes to catch you with long balls out of nowhere.
Shaqiri is likely to start lining up in the #10 role – which actually may suit home well as a passer against Columbus’s system, given his relatively limited mobility. One weakness of Nancy’s tactics is they are prone to leaving space behind their midfield, particularly when attacking. A quick ball from Federico Navarro or Gastón Giménez to Shaqiri should give the Swiss international time and space to mount some kind of an attack.
Fire Keys to Victory
- One goal: The Fire are out of the U.S. Open Cup. That’s not the way they wanted it but it’s the way that it is. They will also play in the Leagues Cup, but that comes during a break in the regular season. They no longer have to juggle multiple competitions. It isn’t what they wanted, but now there is only one thing that matters – points. Squad rotations become easier, the focus becomes easier. Entering the match with a W and within striking distance of a playoff spot would be a huge boost for the team going into an international break when most players will remain at home.
- It’s a trap: Columbus’s backs will gladly hold onto the ball for as long as it takes for multiple runners to descend on them before passing. The Fire need to remember this and not fall into the trap of committing excess numbers. Guti and Maren are both fast, and Kei still has speed in bursts. That should be enough to threaten Columbus into passing and at the very least, prevent the Fire from going into a situation where
- One goal (again): So that Columbus working building out of the back plan? It doesn’t work nearly as well when down by a goal, forcing the team to push farther and move the ball before they’ve necessarily got targets where they want them. Getting the first goal is always important, but it’s critical for additional reasons against Columbus.
There aren’t enough home games left on the calendar to drop any more points at Soldier Field. This is a must-win. Shaqiri should deliver.
Prediction: Fire 1-0 Columbus
The Fire just gave up everything for a shot at moving forward in the Open Cup. Sometimes, all that effort goes to waste, especially when there’s such little effort. The Fire are tired and defeated. Wilfried Nancy is a coach that’ll find a way to run up teams. This isn’t going to be fun.
Prediction: Fire 1-3 Columbus
Switch back to a back four, for the love of God.
Prediction: Fire 2-1 Columbus
We’re due for a win, and I think Frank Klopas will finally give up on his dreams of a three-back after the Open Cup situation. We’re at home, and I expect a full-strength lineup to give Columbus a run for their money.
Prediction: Fire 1-0 Columbus
Columbus are the better team, and Nancy is oiling the machine. The Fire are undefeated at home, but they’ve got to be mentally and physically exhausted after the games they’ve had. I’m not a glass half full or glass half empty, I’m glass 50% capacity right now, so: The Fire eke out a draw that, come Sunday morning, feels better than nothing but ultimately unsatisfying, like dining on a plate full of marshmallows (no offense to diabetics intended).
Prediction: Fire 2-2 Columbus
Because we need a vibe switch, and I’m manifesting it.
Prediction: Fire 2-1 Columbus
Match Information and How to Watch
Date and Time: Saturday, June 10, 7:30 PM CT
Location: Soldier Field, Chicago, Ill.
Forecast: 76’F expected at kick-off, with 38% humidity, winds SE at 7mph, 85% cloud cover, and 0% chance of precipitation
TV: Apple TV – Free
Radio: 890 WLAS-AM