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Published on April 7th, 2017 | by Jeff Engelhardt

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Crunch Time: Fire enter crucial game against Columbus

I don’t know if I even remember what soccer looks like, but here goes nothing!

First, I’d like to apologize for how quiet this site and Twitter have been lately. With it being only a two-man operation, it can take quite a drop when one of those two said men has a new child come into his life five weeks earlier than expected. But I am finally out of the confines of a hospital and back in the real world with sun and trees and other wonderful things like soccer.

The question now is just how wonderful will Chicago Fire soccer end up being this season.

This current three-game home stand is supposed to help answer that question and the first part of the answer was not exactly reassuring. Fire fans were living the dream of dreams last Saturday when Bastian Schweinsteiger scored a goal within his first 20 minutes as an MLS player. You couldn’t be blamed if wild dreams of endless success danced about your head as Toyota Park exploded.

But those visions would be clouded only 70 minutes later when the Men in Red walked off the pitch taking only a point – and barely at that.

Playing catch up against a heavily depleted Montreal Impact side in your home park is not exactly the way to show the suffering of the last few years is going to be a thing of the past in 2017. But the goal (established by me) is still seven points out of nine in this three-game home stretch and it starts Saturday against Columbus.

If you’ll recall, the Fire opened their season against Columbus in what was a sloppy affair. Chicago was badly outplayed in the first half, but burst to life in the second half only to miss a couple good chances to take a point from what could have been three.

Fast forward a few weeks and Columbus is looking like the team I picked to make the playoffs. Justin Meram is leading the charge and the ambition is on full display as the Crew recently went out and acquired speed demon Kekuta Manneh. A dangerous attack has gotten more dangerous.

Meanwhile, the Fire are still finding their footing. At 1-1-2, Chicago has failed to establish just how good or bad they can be. Schweinsteiger is still very fresh and should grow more prominent, even after a strong debut. Matt Polster has yet to appear for the club and Juninho is about to miss his second game in five (both, coincidentally, against the Crew). Needless to say, we just don’t know what this team can be.

What this team should be is a playoff participant. There is no reason for a club boasting Schweinsteiger, Juninho, Dax McCarty, David Accam and Nemanja Nikolic to miss the postseason. So let’s hope the road to the postseason starts Saturday with these three things to keep an eye on.

No Niko, No Party

It is great Schweinsteiger scored so early in his debut. It is great scoring has been spread out. But none of it will matter if Nemanja Nikolic does not end up leading this team in goals. He was brought in to be a pure finisher and it has not worked out at all so far. If he doesn’t hit double digit goals, I have a hard time seeing this team making the playoffs. Nikolic has a depressingly bad TWO shots on goal. TWO!

Some of the fault belongs to the players around him. With no true No. 10, it can be hard to provide the kind of service a striker like Nikolic needs. The team has to do a better job of finding him and making it a point to look for his cues first and then look for other options. But some of this is on Nikolic too. He has had chances that he has wasted and sent shots off target that certainly should’ve challenged the keeper. He also should know he needs to adjust to Veljko Paunovic’s system and this roster’s strengths. All those conversations in the courting stage certainly must have addressed that issue.

I’m all for giving an adjustment period, but that time is about up. If Niko wants to avoid joining the notorious ranks of Chicago’s failed strikers, he needs to produce sooner rather than later. I’d suggest Saturday.

Juni-No!!!

Juninho is truly one of us. Sure, he may have had his greatest success with the LA Galaxy but he has embraced Chicago so much that he hates Columbus to the point of being physically unable to stand on the same field as them. This will be the second time Juninho misses a match against Columbus and the Fire have to hope they have an answer to that sooner this time around. Juninho’s absence was obvious in the first half during the season opener, but the team adjusted well in the second half during the first meeting between these two teams.

The Fire can make up for Juninho’s absence in a lot of potentially fun and creative ways. Schweinsteiger can hold his place and Matt Polster could reclaim his old position for the first time this season. His tenacity could be useful against a high octane Columbus attack. Or Paunovic could even get a little crazy and pull Schweinsteiger back toward Dax McCarty and start wunderkind Daniel Johnson in the midfield. And of course, Michael de Leeuw and Schweinsteiger could share the field as well.

I’m actually looking forward to how it all shakes out in the midfield Saturday and I’m not sure there is a bad answer. Should be much smoother than in the opener.

Pull the Plug

Speaking of lineup changes, it’s time. Michael Harrington has to go. Not leave completey, you can keep around if you really want. But his time as a starter, at least for now, must come to an end. Everyone has seen enough except for Paunovic apparently. There are no excuses left. The “we don’t have a true right back” argument just doesn’t fly.

I know some people want to make soccer out to be some sort of highly specialized sport where all eleven positions must be filled by someone who has spent their entire life working on the craft for that specific role. I have bad news. Soccer isn’t that complicated. The Fire have tremendous athletes who know how to run hard and understand the basic responsibilities of everyone within Paunovic’s system. Matt Polster and Johan Kappelhof are capable athletes with enough brain power to understand the seemingly highly complex position of right back. They are soccer players, Paunovic! For the love of Serbia please play soccer players who are good at soccer over the soccer players who are not. Don’t make this harder than it has to be anymore. Play Drew Conner there. Play Patrick Doody there. I don’t care. Make a switch and I will applaud it, regardless of the end result.

Prediction: Chicago 1, Columbus 2

I hate to predict this. My head says the Fire lose this game, but my heart says they win. This is a huge game for an early season contest. The Fire know how important this home stand is with a tough road trip looming and they might just muster up the effort to overcome a hot Crew team. But the mental mistakes are hard to ignore. Two games in a row, the Fire have gone down to 10 men. Red cards are killers, but those are only the most obvious mistakes. This team is prone to defensive lapses, sloppy goal play and slow starts. They can’t do that against Columbus, but they need to prove to me they can avoid it first.

Meram and Ola Kamara score for Columbus. David Accam scores for Chicago.

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