After another exciting come from behind win against Montreal, our Men in Red host the Columbus Crew this Saturday night at Toyota Park. Contributions from all of Chicago's attacking mid-season acquisitions put the league on notice that they are legitimate contenders for the Eastern Conference title. After Wednesday's Sporting Kansas City win in New York, the Fire are four points behind SKC for first in the East.
Columbus, meanwhile, are still looking to get in the post-season after their recent hot streak cooled down with consecutive losses against New York and D.C. United. However, those games were played without the injured talismanic Federico Higuain who was the main spark behind Columbus' late season playoff push. Higuain returned in the team's mid-week 1-0 win against Chivas USA and will likely play in Bridgeview.
Also returning from injury will be Pavel Pardo who sat out last weekend's game against Montreal while Alex filled in his holding midfielder role. Arne Friedrich, who left the field in the first half with neck pain, is off the injury list and will likely figure in shutting down the Columbus attack.
Both teams are chasing down a coveted spot with games running out. While Chicago sits at 50 points with six games remaining, Columbus sits in fifth place with 45 points with five games remaining having played one more than D.C. United. This game will promise excitement and physical play as two rivals battle for all desperately needed three points available.
During the Fire's hot streak the Fire's midfield has done well to stop the opposition's main midfield threat. Felipe, Brad Davis, Benny Feilhaber, and Eric Avila were all silenced starving the strikers of service. The aggregated contributions from Logan Pause, Pardo, Daniel Paladini, and Alex in the holding midfielder positions have been an enormous part of the Fire's recent success. They will need to be immense again as popular pick for MLS Newcomer of the Year Federico Higuain comes to town. Higuain has registered three goals and six assists in his first five games, all wins. Especially concerning is his tendency to contribute in the dying seconds of a match making Columbus a threat to steal points when all appears to be over.
In a way, that makes Columbus very much like San Jose in the sense that no lead is safe and a full 90 minutes (plus however much stoppage time) effort is required to lead the team to victory. The Fire backline has been solid with only a few rare errors that have often yielded goals. The last Fire shutout was the 1-0 win at home against Vancouver nine games ago all the way back to July 14th. The attack has bailed out the defense with prolific potency (I never thought I would type that a year and a half ago), but with the playoffs coming, lapses of concentration must be eliminated if the Fire want to go to a cup final in consecutive years.
One specific area upon which the Fire need to improve is defending from wide areas. Many of the recent goals the Fire have conceded have been from wide service. Marco DiVaio's goal last week came from a cross to feet. Jalil Anibaba's own goal against Philadelphia came from a cross just behind the defensive line. Eric Hassli's goal came from Luis Silva dribbling centrally pulling Anibaba out of position freeing up Hassli for a clear shot. At least two of D.C. United's goals in the 4-2 debacle came from crosses into the box. Anibaba and Gonzalo Segares must operate smarter and tighter and Patrick Nyarko and Alvaro Fernandez must quickly track back to eliminate service preventing a dangerous ball in to the box.
Columbus will also be getting some returning defensive help as Andy Greuenbaum returned to the lineup against Chivas USA after suffering from back pain earlier in the week. The Crew defense has been decent allowing 35 goals in 29 games, but the weaknesses are still there. Chad Marshall has not been his past Defender of the Year self and Josh Williams has been a decent option at left back, but is still a rookie. Sending the ball down the right side for Nyarko to take on Williams one on one may produce great results for the Men in Red.
And a great result should be expected tonight. With a sell out Toyota Park crowd and three invaluable points on the line against an old time rival, the Fire will be well up for this match and can add another home win if they manage the game well.