Major League Soccer returns this weekend, and Saturday serves up a potentially tasty matchup as the Columbus Crew hosts the Chicago Fire at the Historic Crew Stadium.
Columbus have rebounded well from a poor start to the season, as they won their last two games before the break. Two free-kicks from Lucas Zelarayán led them past NYCFC at Yankee Stadium before the Crew then beat Toronto FC 2-1 at home. The reigning MLS Cup Champions now have a bit of momentum behind them, and they’ll look to carry that run of form into the summer, starting with a victory in this contest.
Chicago, meanwhile, have really struggled this campaign. They were defeated once again in their last game, falling 1-0 to CF Montréal at Soldier Field despite being the better team throughout. That result meant that they have only picked up four points from their first seven games, which is the 2nd lowest total in the entire league. The Fire are already seven points behind a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, so there’s plenty of pressure on them to turn things around before it’s too late.
This fixture has a bit of extra meaning to it, as it will be the last match played at the Historic Crew Stadium before Columbus officially move to Lower.com Field. As a result, both teams will be looking to pick up a result, as the hosts will want to send their old home off in style, while Chicago will hope to spoil the party.
Columbus could be without a number of players for the contest, as Perry Kitchen and Milton Valenzuela both have hamstring injuries, while Luis Díaz and Aidan Morris are dealing with knee issues. Last but not least, Kevin Molino has a muscle problem.
It’s a similar story for Chicago. Przemysław Frankowski and Gastón Giménez are both out on international duty, while Kenneth Kronholm and Stanislav Ivanov are still dealing with respective long-term injuries, so neither will feature.
Columbus Crew: Room, Afful, Wormgoor, Williams, Santos, Artur, Nagbe, Mățan, Zelarayán, Etienne, Zardes
Chicago Fire: Shuttleworth, Sekulić, Omsberg, Calvo, Bornstein, Pineda, Medrán, Herbers, Stojanović, Aliseda, Berić
Ones to watch
The star man for Columbus in their title-winning campaign last season, this year has been a tougher one for Lucas Zelarayán.
Things started off well, to be fair. The Argentine played a key role in the team’s early CONCACAF Champions League run, helping them get past Real Estelí in the round of 16 with an assist in each of the two legs. He also scored in the first leg of the quarterfinal versus Monterrey, but he didn’t feature in the return fixture that the Crew lost 3-0, which knocked them out of the tournament.
In MLS play, Zelarayán hasn’t made much of an impact. Other than the two aforementioned free-kick goals versus NYCFC, he’s only scored on one other occasion, and that also came via a free-kick. What’s most concerning is that he has yet to register an assist this campaign, which is especially poor considering the fact that he’s playing as a central attacking midfielder.
He may not be at his best right now, but there’s always the chance that the number 10 could turn things around in an instant. Incredibly talented, he’s just so dangerous in the final third since he can shoot, pass, and dribble with seemingly equal ease. That was on show in the 2020 MLS Cup final, as he put on a masterclass, scoring twice and grabbing an assist to lead his side to the title.
If Zelarayán can rediscover that form on Saturday, then Chicago just might not be able to stop him from running riot once again.
The designated player hasn’t had the best of times since joining the Fire, but there’s reason to believe that Ignacio Aliseda might finally be able to demonstrate why there was so much fanfare surrounding his signing.
He’s missed most of this season, as he picked up an injury on opening day that ruled him out for over a month. He only returned in Chicago’s last game, making a cameo off the bench in the loss to Montréal. However, it’s that brief appearance that is what gives fans hope for the future.
Aliseda looked like a threat, as he got on the ball and drove forward with it. He helped the Fire create space and chances, especially out wide, and he tried his best to get the team level on the day. It was a really promising performance, and it was one that really should have led to a different result.
Despite the loss, the Argentine’s solid showing should provide a platform for him to get going this year. Still only 21-years-old, he’s not even come close to reaching the top of his game. If he can build upon his earlier showing, then he could become a real star in MLS. He should be fully fit by now since that game was a number of weeks ago, so he’ll likely be in the starting lineup for the first time in a while.
Chicago could certainly use him at his best. Aliseda provides the team with a new dynamic whenever he plays, as his directness and ability to beat defenders individually is what separates him from the rest of the roster. They’ve failed to score much without him, so they will hope his return is what changes things going forward.
Whether or not that happens remains to be seen, but another quality performance from Aliseda this weekend would be good news for the Fire, and bad news for the rest of the league.
Last time out
It was quite the encounter the last time these two sides faced off.
Taking place nearly midway through the 2020 season, the contest seemed like it was going to be a relatively simple one early on as Chicago scored twice in the opening 15 minutes. The first goal came courtesy of Djordje Mihailovic, who converted from close range to finish off a clinical counter attack. Then, just moments later, Robert Berić redirected a low cross from Fabian Herbers through the legs of the goalkeeper to double the Fire’s advantage.
However, Columbus would eventually respond. They pulled one back in the 68th minute after a header from Gyasi Zardes bounced off of Fatai Alashe before flying into the back of the net. They then equalized with just minutes to go, as a deflection fell kindly to Zardes in the area, and he was able to slot home to steal a point for his side.
It was a brutal end to the contest for Chicago, with that game summing up their season as a whole quite well.
How to watch
The contest will kick off at 6:30 p.m. CST, with those in Chicago able to watch it on WGN or chicagofirefc.com, while others in the United States can see the action unfold on ESPN+.