As this story goes to press, two busses full of Section 8 passion are winding their way through the cornfields and small towns of the Midwest toward Cowtown. The trip is expected to take six hours, although the density of farming equipment in Ohio could make it a bit longer; ever tried to pass a combine on a two-lane highway? In a tour bus? Yeah.
The question before us today, then, is what needs to happen to make our supporters' trip home a joyous, drunken revelry, rather than a sad, drunken wake? I attempt to answer this question while providing a bit of light mockery of Firehouse East in this week's Scouting Report.
In the back: Track Higuain like he's kidnapped your children
Columbus' offense is triggered almost exclusively by the genius of Federico Higuain, and stopping him playing is no simple task. Higuain has essentially unlimited freedom to roam; he'll pop up on the wings in space, or drop back past midfield to start play, in a manner familiar to Fire fans who watched Cuauhtemoc Blanco dominate for the Men in Red. And he has the skill to produce jaw-dropping goals like this one:
That goal's similarity to Patrick Nyarko's cross-shot goal against New York is entirely superficial. Nyarko's was a slightly mishit accident; Higuain's is all intention and skill, and a perfect example of what the man can do given a couple yards of space. If the Fire are to win, marking Higuain is Job One. If the Fire are to get that first, elusive clean sheet today, making it hard for Higuain is Jobs One, Two, and Three.
In the back: Don't get caught forward on the flanks
The Crew are the current employer of our former speed-freak, Dom Oduro. The noted pizza-chain sycophant has a single trick - running very fast toward the goal - but it's a hell of a trick, especially with the nearly omniscient Higuain around to stroke the ball into his path. The concern here is that Chicago's basic shape is a bit lopsided, with Harrison Shipp pulling infield from a left-sided starting position, which encourages the left back to join the attack to provide width. On those occasions, Oduro (who usually plays on the right for Ol' Yeller) will be vibrating with the desire to challenge one of our centerbacks to a footrace. Unless Jhon Kennedy Hurtado has miraculously recovered his searing, pre-injury footspeed (he hasn't), that's a race Dom wins 105 times out of 100.
That said, we can't expect our fullbacks to play flat with the central defenders if the Fire hope to keep the ball at all. On those occasions when the Men in Red have the ball in the attacking zone, winning the fight for any second ball around the box will cut the Higuain-Oduro supply line.
On the right, should Lovel Palmer not play (he's battled kidney stones all week), expect a cautious substitution of Logan Pause or Steven Kinney rather than green wingback Marco Franco, for just the reasons I outlined above.
Going forward: Get multiple runners into the box
Columbus have had problems scoring goals at times in 2014, but their defense has kept them in every game. The offseason addition of Michael Parkhurst has solidifed the center of the park for Bananarama, and the Costa Rican duo of left back Waylon Francis and stopper Giancarlo Gonzalez have also played well.
Thing is, Francis and Gonzalez are with the Ticos prepping for the World Cup, meaning that recently-returned Parkhurst will have to pair up with either Tyson Wahl or Eric Gehrig, with an unknown (Chad Barson?) playing on the left. In other words, for the second week in a row, the Fire will be playing a solid defensive team who are swapping in reserves and hoping for the best.
Parkhurst's skill at reading the game means that at least one runner into the box will always be covered, and his rather non-confrontational style could be a conundrum for a mano-y-mano brawler like Quincy Amarikwa. The Men in Red should find more joy with late runs from midfield, though, as this Bananrama defense won't have anything like the cohesion (or raw ability) of the usual starters. Whoever starts in the No. 8 role - be it Benji Joya, Alex, or whoever - will need to make strong, smart runs into the area consistently when the ball comes forward; by forcing the Crew to communicate and switch on the fly, chances should come thick and fast.
Going forward: Win the wings, win the war
Word is that Patrick Nyarko is out for today with a knee problem. It's too bad, because this matchup sets up wonderfully for his skill set. Inexperienced left back? Check. Defense that should lack cohesion? Check. Still, the Fire have depth there, and the prospect of Dilly Duka once again getting to show Columbus they shouldn't have dealt him is entertaining.
Cowtown's double pivot of Tony Tchani and Will Trapp is another reason to focus on the wings. Their typical deployment will occupy much of the space in zone 14 that Harrison Shipp uses to create chances; if the Fire can cause problems on the flanks, Tchani and Trapp will have to slide over to help out, which should give our young maestro the pocket of quiet he needs to orchestrate.
Middle third: Pounce on mistakes, break at pace
Despite a preseason spent building a possession style, the Fire seem to have counter-attacking football in their blood; we are the second-highest scoring team in the league, despite seldom having all that much of the ball. In contrast, Berhalter's built Cowtown into a legitimate possession club, able to keep the ball reliably - they've had more of the ball in every game this year.
That might not be much of a disadvantage for the Men in Red. If Chicago can keep their basic shape, Columbus will pass and pass deep in midfield, looking for openings, and each pass will be an opportunity for the mistake which starts the counter. Look for mistakes to crop up thanks to Amarikwa's and Mike Magee's tireless hounding of the inexperienced Crew defense.