Published on March 3rd, 2017 | by Jeff Engelhardt0
A New Hope: Chicago Fire vs Columbus Crew Preview
The most wonderful time of the year is here. The Chicago Fire is undefeated and there are plenty of good vibes as the Men in Red head into their first real match of the season. Anything seems possible and there is no reason to believe Chicago will not be able to break the winless streak on opening day that stretches back to 2010.
But what can be hard to remember in these times of unadulterated optimism is that, come Saturday, there will be another undefeated team (because they all are) standing in front of the Fire with the same level of confidence that this is the year to reclaim past glory.
Outside of a general distaste for one another, Chicago and Columbus have a lot in common heading into 2017. Both made significant roster additions, both are heading into the season with a playoff berth or bust attitude and both are relying on a new Designated Player to cure their greatest woes.
Saturday’s game is huge for both clubs. There is a tendency to inflate the importance of a season opener, but in this situation, it does carry some legitimate value compared to most of the other opening fixtures. Fire supporters know all to well how the tone can be set within the first three matches of a season. Slow starts to the regular season have plagued Fire squads coming off impressive seasons many times before. Momentum and confidence might be intangibles, but they carry real effects.
For Columbus, a loss could greatly dampen hope too. Coming off a disastrous season in which the team was expected to compete for trophies, Columbus does not want to make what seems like an outlier become habit. A loss to the lowly Fire at home could quickly have fans asking, if not Chicago, then who can we beat?
Let’s look at some of the intriguing aspects heading into Saturday’s clash.
Nemanja Nikolic vs Jonathan Mensah
In a game of individual battles, this is Saturday’s heavyweight fight. Both men will be making their club debut in a competitive match and both men will be carrying the weight of expectation on their shoulders. Mensah, an imposing and physical presence, was brought in to plug one of the leakiest defenses in MLS last year. As a defensive Designated Player, he is expected to help shut down even the best of the league’s attackers be it David Villa, Sebastian Giovinco or some other star. He’ll have help with another new defender in Jukka Raitala and still fairly new center back Nicolai Naess, but it will be Mensah who is expected to shine the brightest and make the defensive machine move.
Nikolic was brought to Chicago to bring defenders like Mensah to their knees. Nikolic has lit up every league he has ever played in and it’s not crazy to think Fire coach Veljko Paunovic and general manager Nelson Rodriguez had visions of Golden Boots dancing in their heads when Nikolic signed the dotted line. When Nikolic takes the field, he’ll be expected to score. Mensah will not be easy to beat, but with a red hot Michael de Leeuw and David Accam providing support, Nikolic has a chance to make the bigger statement in the battle of the DPs.
Both men will want to prove their worth to their new clubs in their first game, so it should be heated all game.
The Tried and True vs the Black and Blue
Will Trapp was supposed to be a star. He was one of the darlings of U.S. soccer for years and talked about regularly as a future national team lynchpin. But the wheels fell off the hype train in 2016 as Columbus looked toothless defensively while the offense was usually summarized with two words: Ola Kamara. Trapp found himself a bit of a forgotten man in the national conversation. So Columbus will bring in the battered and bruised reputation of their holding midfielders against Chicago’s tried and true duo.
Dax McCarty and Juninho have a chance to form the best duo in the league when it comes to a 4-2-3-1 formation. There is nothing and no one in the league that will surprise either man at this point. They know how to handle and solve almost any situation. That is the level Trapp expects to reach at some point and he will be playing with a chip on his shoulder to show he can. Whether he is paired with former partner Tony Tchani or new man Artur, Trapp will want to re-establish his reputation as a dominant midfielder as soon as he can.
While I expect Trapp to have a bounce back year, I think McCarty and Juninho control the tempo in this one.
All you need to know is Kamara scored a staggering 16 goals in 25 appearances last year. He is one of the very best scorers in the league and worth watching anytime he is on the field. If he gets to 30 or 34 appearances this season, there is no reason to think he won’t get to 20 goals. While Fire fans are rightfully excited about Nikolic, Kamara still might be the best pure goal scorer on the field Saturday.
I am sure Paunovic has been preaching to his defense all week about the importance of sticking like glue to the Norwegian striker, but chances are it won’t be enough. I don’t see Columbus getting shut out in their home opener and Kamara is going to be the man to break through.
Prediction: Chicago Fire 3, Columbus Crew 2
I desperately want Chicago to break their winless streak in season openers. I think setting a tone is going to be very important this season and I have a feeling a positive tone could be set Saturday. Nikolic will tally his first MLS goal and de Leeuw will continue his red hot form and find the net too. A third goal will be scored after Columbus’ rookie goalkeeper Zack Steffen takes down David Accam on a breakaway to setup a penalty.
Kamara scores for Columbus and so does Justin Meram because he will victimize whoever is playing right back at least once.