After yet another draw on Wednesday night, the Fire continue their home stretch Saturday, facing the Columbus Crew at Toyota Park (7:00pm CT on My50/TWCSC). The Crew are holding on to the last playoff spot in the East and the Fire know that this game is essentially a six-pointer, with a win bringing the Men in Red to within two points of the Crew with a game in hand while a loss would leave the Fire 8 points adrift on the final playoff spot.
Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective.
Creating more chances from midfield
Against Vancouver on Wednesday, the Fire set up with Matt Watson and Chris Ritter in the center of midfield, with Alex on the left and Grant Ward on the right. While this quartet was very effective in shutting down Vancouver danger man Pedro Morales and retained possession reasonably well, the midfield didn’t create enough opportunities for strikers Quincy Amarikwa and Mike Magee.
At times, Watson made some forward runs, but Magee was forced to drop deeper as the game went on, taking him further away from his striker partner. The Fire created more chances when Razvan Cocis and Harry Shipp came on with a half hour to play and I expect to see at least one of that pair start on Saturday.
The Fire have had success lately with Alex playing on the right and Shipp on the left and could revert to that system on Saturday or we could see Shipp or Alex moving inside at the expense of one of the two defensive minded central midfielders.
This would certainly mean the Fire would have more creative players on the field from the start, but breaking up the Ritter/Watson partnership leaves the potential for Federico Higuain to wreak havoc against only a single defensive midfielder.
The Crew are not as much of counter attacking threat as previous opponents and with three huge points on the line, I expect the Fire coaching staff to take a bit of a risk and replace one of the two central mids with a more attack-minded player.
Dealing with Higuain – staying tighter than in the last game against Columbus
In the Fire’s last regular season match against the Crew, a 2-0 loss, the Men in Red were undone by two defense splitting passes by Higuain, in my opinion the best number 10 in Major League Soccer.
Higuain is given a free role to roam the pitch in search of the ball. His specialty is dropping deep, collecting the ball and looking to play balls in behind the defense. Aside from man marking the player, the Fire’s retention of the ball is a way to can keep it out of Higuain’s hands.
He thrives on collecting the ball from a turnover in possession and playing passes in behind early, catching the defense out. If the Fire do indeed decide to drop one of the more defensive-minded central mids for this match, the onus will be on other players to step out and challenge Higuain, not allowing him time and space. Jeff Larentowicz is particularly good at this and stepped forward from center back to snuff out Vancouver attacks on numerous occasions in his man of the match performance on Wednesday night.
When Higuain drifts outside, wide players like Grant Ward and Alex, both of whom are quite good defensively, must tuck in to challenge the Argentine. As with any special player, Higuain draws defenders to him leaving space behind them.
It’s one thing to try and stop Higuain from playing the balls through, but the Fire defenders must also be better at keeping tabs on the runners who are trying to get behind the back line.
Both goals against Columbus in late May were avoidable, with the Fire back line being caught too far up the field and unable to track back quick enough when the Columbus strikers picked up the ball. If the back four can stay disciplined and the Fire limit the amount of touches in dangerous areas Higuain has, they stand a great chance of winning.
Prediction: The Fire stop the rot with a 1-0 win courtesy of a goal from Alex.
Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @Irish_Steve.