The excitement of a new season just around the corner was in full effect for the Chicago Fire.
The team made some upgrades in the offseason and head into Saturday's match at Columbus with genuine reason for optimism. The season opener will be live on CSN with coverage beginning at 12:30 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live.
All the excitement leading into a season opener came to a bit of a halt when news broke on Friday that one of those key offseason acquisitions, Brazilian midfielder Juninho, will be suspended for Saturday's match in Columbus. Juninho will be out due to a red card received in his last game with Mexican club Tijuana in November. Paul Tenorio first broke the news on twitter.
Mexican Fed requested the suspension upheld. Chicago appealed to FIFA this week, but lost. So won't see McCarty-Juninho pairing in Columbus.— Paul Tenorio (@PaulTenorio) March 3, 2017
Juninho's absence will mean the anticipated central midfield pairing of him and Dax McCarty will have to wait until next week's home opener against Real Salt Lake.
Matt Polster would have been the likely replacement in central midfield, but he has been out for most of the preseason with a knee injury and is not available for Saturday's match. That makes the possible replacements John Goossens, who has been used more as a winger with the Fire but has also played centrally, and Drew Conner, a second-year homegrown center mid who did not make any appearances with the Fire last season. Another option is to have Joao Meira, a central defender who at times played in the midfield last season, take Juninho's spot and go with Jonathan Campbell and Johan Kappelhof as the centerback pairing.
Regardless of who is available, in the week leading up to Saturday's match, the Fire had talked about the importance of getting off to a hot start this season.
"I think the staff is pretty confident about the season, but we want to stay on the ground," coach Veljko Paunovic said. "We want to build expectations as the season starts and move forward. That's what I'm emphasizing and focusing on because it doesn't mean the good start will give you a great season, but it's important."
One of the interesting dynamics with the match will be Columbus' possession-based style against the Fire's ability to counter. The Crew led MLS in possession last season while the Fire were last. While the Fire may have relied on the counter anyway, not being able to see how Juninho and McCarty match up against a possession-based team would have been a good early test for the Fire's new midfield.
[RELATED: 2017 MLS Eastern Conference preview]
Columbus' front four is the same as last year with Ola Kamara coming off a 16-goal season (in just 25 matches and 20 starts) and playmaker Federico Higuain and wingers Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay in support. Kamara's participation in the match is also uncertain. He is listed as questionable on the injury report due to "concussion symptoms."
Berhalter said of Ola Kamara: "I could imagine he takes some part in the game." Participated Fri. "in some fashion." #CrewSC— Andrew Erickson (@AEricksonAU) March 3, 2017
Columbus' defense has been reworked a bit with the acquisition of Ghanaian national teamer Jonathan Mensah. The center back will likely play alongside countryman Harrison Afful, a right back. That means Fire winger David Accam will be facing off against some familiar faces and national team teammates on Saturday.
The goalkeepers for both teams will be making MLS debuts. Jorge Bava, another offseason signing, is expected to start with the Fire. Returning keeper Matt Lampson is questionable with a knee injury that limited him this preseason. Columbus will start 21-year-old Zack Steffen, who the club acquired from Bundesliga club Freiburg late in the 2016 season.
The two teams were the bottom two in the Eastern Conference last season, but are both expecting to be better in 2017.
"There is a very good tough opponent that we have to face on the road," Paunovic said. "We know that our record in the past wasn't great on the road. That's where we have to change the mentality and this is the opportunity."
After finishing last in the league for two straight years, the Fire are hoping to prove this season and this team is different. Nemanja Nikolic, a newcomer to the team, emphasized the importance of starting with a win.
"If we win it gets our confidence up for every player, for the team, for the supporters," Nikolic said.
Chicago Fire at Columbus Crew
When: Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m.
Where: Mapfre Stadium, Columbus, Ohio