The Fire head to Ohio’s capital to face the Crew on Wednesday in search of points as the team tries to punch its ticket to the postseason for the first time in six seasons.
The match comes as the Fire are in the midst of their second-longest goalless drought in team history at 403 minutes and counting, just 38 minutes shy of the record set last year, spanning parts of six matches, from Chris Mueller’s 49th-minute goal against the Union on August 13 and running through Jhon Durán’s 40th-minute tally against Inter Miami.
The Fire face a Crew team that will be hungry for a win and the ensuing three points as the team tries to shake off a meltdown that saw them blow a three-goal lead en route to a loss on Saturday. The Crew are looking for points as the team tries to secure fourth place or better and home-field advantage in the opening round of the playoffs.
Results over the weekend have kept the Fire in the postseason picture, but it’s do-or-die time for the Fire: They need to find a way to get more than one point out of every five games.
All time: 27W-23D-24L, 97 GF/ 112 GA, 104 pts out of 216
Last Match: June 10, 2023: Fire 1-2 Columbus at Soldier Field, Chicago, Ill.
Record: 13W-6D-9L (45 pts)
The Crew have been consistently inconsistent this season, up through their most recent matches: The Crew returned from the Leagues Cup with a stunning 3-0 victory over Supporters Shield-leading FC Cincinnati, followed by a 2-0 victory over Toronto before being dealt a 2-0 loss in Houston. They beat Montréal 4-2 on September 2nd, before going up three goals against Orlando City before a late meltdown saw them lose the match 4-3 off a stoppage-time goal.
Record: 8W-9D-11L (33 pts)
The Fire finally have a point after the Leagues Cup, playing Montréal to a 0-0 draw last Saturday. Prior to that, the team lost its four games since the Leagues Cup, managing just a single goal in that stretch, in their first game back against Orlando.
The Columbus Crew were one of the Fire’s earliest, fiercest rivals. Even if it has been years since other teams from Great Lakes states joined the league, it is still a rivalry that Fire fans hold close to their heart.
Wednesday’s matchup, however, is about a lot more than old grudges: Both teams are in situations where every point matters. For the Fire, a win will likely propel them into a playoff spot, and, at the last, keeps them seriously in contention.
The Crew, meanwhile, desperately want to climb the standings: They currently sit in fifth place, meaning they lack home-field advantage in the best-of-three first-round playoff series. For a team that has performed significantly better at home than away, climbing the standings – into fourth or higher, to play in front of a home crowd as long as possible – is critical.
The Fire have benefited from fortuitous results of late: During last Saturday’s matches, the teams below the Fire in the Eastern Conference standings gained position on the team, and they kept pace with D.C. United and (obviously) Montréal, the two teams above them in the standings.
That won’t continue forever, and the Fire need to start getting points again and soon. The number varies, but the team likely needs 11 – possibly 12 – to make the postseason. With six games remaining, the margins are there, but they’re incredibly narrow.
It’s not “win or go home,” but the Fire need to play every minute from there through Decision Day as if it were if they want to return to the postseason.
Tactics and Projected Starting Lineups
OUT: Will Sands
Crew Head Coach Wilfried Nancy remains one of the most intriguing coaches in MLS, when you look at the way he’s able to motivate his teams and the tactics and flair his teams employed. Columbus made a major statement of intent when they poached the 46-year-old Frenchman from Montréal.
The Crew were looking good since the Fire last saw them, but are looking even better now: they’ve had six wins, three draws and three losses since squaring off against the Fire at Soldier Field, including their victory over the Fire, giving the team their first defeat at Soldier Field this season.
The team still plays with three in the back and a midfield four, then either has two players working sort of as double #10s to feed a single striker, or one #10 – historically, Lucas Zelarayán, now departed for the Saudi Pro league, more recently, Alexandru Măţan – feeding two forwards, usually Cucho Hernández and Christian Ramírez.
Normally, the departure of a player of Zelarayan’s caliber would result in a dropoff in form, but that hasn’t happened. Wilfred Nancy’s approach emphasizes the collective, instead of the individual, and the Crew added veteran midfielder (and former Zee Soccer podcaster alongside Fabian Herbers) Julian Gressel to the squad to soften the blow.
Columbus has had results regardless of whether they play with one or two forwards. They’ve played the 3-4-2-1 far more often, but they’ve had success with the 3-4-1-2, even after Zelarayán’s departure, using it in their 3-0 statement win over FC Cincinnati in the second leg of the Hell is Real Derby a month ago.
Nancy’s system is fairly unique in MLS, playing with a back three and yet asking the attack to build out from the back. Columbus will gleefully hold on to the ball as long as you let them – they lead the league with 56.7% possession – with their backline inviting attacking players to them. It’s a trap. As soon as attackers commit to try to win the ball back, their backs will exploit the space created to play the ball forward.
You might think that the plan would be to bomb the ball down the field at that point, but you’d be wrong: Columbus is 28th in the league in long-distance pass attempts. They’re second in medium-distance (15-30 yard) passes and lead the league in short-distance pass attempts and completions. They don’t want to bomb the ball down the field; they just want to get the opposition out of possession, and Nancy relies on the ability of his squad to work together collectively to advance the ball up the field and generate chances before the opposition has a chance to reset on defense.
It works: The team is the league leader in goals scored with 57 and is tied with Philadelphia for second in goal differential, behind St. Louis.
One issue Nancy will have to face on Wednesday is the need for squad rotation, with the team, like the Fire, playing three games in the course of a week – so don’t be surprised if players like Gressel or Diego Rossi are on the bench at kickoff, in favor of players like Mohamed Farsi and Christian Ramírez.
Out: Victor Bezerra, Javier Casas Jr, Chris Mueller, Federico Navarro
Questionable: Jonathan Dean, Kacper Przybyłko, Carlos Terán
The Fire have not scored in over 400 minutes of competitive soccer, and that isn’t really because of injury or squad rotation. You could argue that it’s been in part bad luck – the Fire do have 3.9 expected goals (xG) since the last time they had an actual goal (though they were out-chanced on xG in each of the losses), but it isn’t just an issue of bad luck.
At times, like in the match against Vancouver, the issue has been the final touch, as the Fire got into looks from dangerous places but none, other than Kei Kamara’s shot in the 10th minute, which actually necessitated Yohei Tkaoka to make a save. In other matches, like last Saturday against Montréal, the issue is that the team all too often doesn’t get a chance to make the final touch, relying on crosses that seem aimed at no one in particular, which all too often land up on the foot of an opposing defender instead of a Fire attacker.
Like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, each of the Fire’s goalless matches have been different, but they all end up in the same place: As a team that really needs to either come up with new ideas or drastically improve the execution of the ideas it has.
They’ll likely have to do it with some amount of squad rotation: Kei Kamara played the full match against Montréal, and with Kacper Przybyłko working his way back from injury (and, besides, likely being the third-choice option for Fire Head Coach Frank Klopas at this point), Georgios Koutsias will likely start at striker.
Behind him, Xherdan Shaqiri will likely return to the starting role, having played just over a half hour on Saturday off the bench, and Maren Haile-Selassie will return to the right wing, where he’s looked more effective, with Brian Gutiérrez taking up the spot on the left wing.
With Federico Navarro still out, Ousmane Doumbia and Gastón Giménez will likely return in the double pivot, ahead of Arnaud Souquet, Rafael Czichos, Mauricio Pineda (with Carlos Terán likely out with injury still), and probably Miguel Ángel Navarro, though Alonso Aceves may get the start again.
Fire Keys to Victory
- New ideas: The Fire have just looked like a team that is out of ideas lately, which is particularly an issue when they had a week off with the vast majority of the squad available. All too often against Montréal, the offense consisted of a blind cross – seldom successful in professional soccer – or a lone player taking the ball into the box as other attackers looked on, often while standing at a dead stop. The Fire need something with more dynamism than that.
- Under pressure: Columbus’s backs will hold the ball to absorb pressure before releasing the ball down the field and kickstarting the attack. That’s part of the game plan, and the idea is to lure opposition attackers into overcommitting. Sometimes Columbus falls for their own trap, and their defense will cough up the ball in dangerous situations. That’s what Orlando was able to do as they came on back from a late three-goal deficit to beat the Crew 4-3 on Saturday.
- Shoot, early and often: This will not solve all of the team’s problems, but we’re back to them just needing to shoot more, even if it’s from fairly low-percentage shots. Preferably, some of these shots would be from dangerous places (none of the Fire’s chances on Saturday were from closer than 12 yards in; Montréal had nine shots that were 12 yards or closer, including five shots from seven yards or less), but frankly any shot is better than none, and might give opportunities for a second look, create a loose ball in a dangerous place, or something.
There’s nothing that indicates to me that the Fire will win this game. Chris Brady will have his work cut out for him if they are to stay in this one, and while he’s probably up to the task, it might not even be enough.
Prediction: Columbus 1-0 Fire
I’ve been waiting for this. I think that this is the perfect moment for the Fire to get one last “wtf” win. Columbus is a very good team and they’re probably very angry about giving up a lead and getting xG’d this past weekend, but I’ll stick with my initial instinct. One last win for the road and then the rest of the season is… We don’t need to talk about that right now.
Prediction: Columbus 2-3 Fire
Prediction: Columbus Fire
One of these teams is good. One of them is not.
Prediction: Columbus 2-0 Fire
The Fire just have to score. Have to. But beat this Columbus team at home? That’s a tall order. I want to believe. But I want to see something first. Come at me: Prove me wrong, Fire.
Prediction: Columbus 3-1 Fire
Prediction: Columbus 1-2 Fire
Match Information and How to Watch
Date and Time: Wednesday, September 20, 2023
Location: Lower.com Field, Columbus, Oh.
Forecast: 76’F expected at kick off, with 45% humidity, winds SSE at 6mph, 34% cloud cover and 0% chance of precipitation
TV: Apple TV – Free
Radio: wlsam.com (English), TUDN 1200AM (Spanish)