With nearly a quarter of the regular season gone, there's little separating last year's Chicago Fire team to this year's squad. Through nine matches in 2014, the Men in Red held a 1-2-6 record. Heading into Friday night's Eastern Conference skirmish with Columbus Crew SC (4-4-2, 14 points), Frank Yallop's side (3-5-1, 10 points) sits just below the red line in seventh spot.
Barring a handful of matches in which they were on the end of unsalvageable scorelines in Yallop's first year at the helm, the Fire's 2014 and 2015 campaigns are two of a kind. Aside from a 2-0 defeat at the hands of defending champion Los Angeles Galaxy, the following eight matches have been evenly contested and settled by a goal or less.
The jarring disparity, despite accumulating virtually selfsame records at the same juncture only a year apart, still reflects itself in the goal department. With 17 in their pocket after nine games in 2014, the Men in Red are finding goals to be at a premium in 2015, having only netted nine, good for second-fewest in Major League Soccer.
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After addressing last week's anticlimactic 2-2 draw against New York City FC — in which the Fire stormed out to a 2-0 lead before the half-hour mark in a superlative first half performance — Yallop will be on high alert come Friday as his side braces itself to overcome a high-octane and potent attacking force in Crew SC.
"They're a good side and they're good at home, so it's obviously a hard game for us," Yallop said. "We've got to go in there with a good attitude. We'll have the same sort of game plan as we did (at NYCFC) but obviously cut out our mistakes that cost us goals."
A group profoundly relying on its possession-oriented style of play, Gregg Berhalter's outfit have underachieved thus far, showing how well it can perform at times without necessarily getting the equivalent results. Much like the Fire, Crew SC's woes away from home have overshadowed their otherwise near impeccable home record — winning four of five at MAPFRE Stadium — the exception being a narrow 2-1 loss to an eye-catching New York Red Bulls team.
Leading the league in passing accuracy (82.4 percent), home goals scored (13), chances created per match (11.6), shots per game (15.2) and, not to mention forward Kei Kamara peering down from his perch atop the goal-scoring leaderboard with seven to his name, the Black & Gold boast an arsenal of attacking threats.
Expect a clever, mercurial and tireless Federico Higuain to put his stamp on the action with his playmaking and goal-scoring know-how, while threading the ball to the likes of Kamara and Ethan Finlay, who — time and again — will impose their lateral and vertical flexibility against the Fire defense, drifting and adjusting their movements to link up with the Argentinian.
Despite the obvious goal threat, the leadership within Berhalter's delegation has yet to fully develop. Since losing vice captain Wil Trapp to a concussion, a depleted Crew SC — on the heels of a 2-0 defeat to the San Jose Earthquakes — will have to find an extra gear to subdue the blistering pace provided by David Accam and Kennedy Igboananike, who've pulled together in front of Shaun Maloney to wreak havoc for opposing defenders.
On Friday, the same might be said when Michael Parkhurst and Emanuel Pogatetz face the Men in Red's Designated Player trio, who'll be integral components as Yallop's side enters its second in a span of seven successive matches against Eastern Conference foes, while looking to pounce at the opportunity to gain three valuable away points.
"We've played well enough to get more points than we have," Yallop said. "Just have to prove it now."
The Fire are 24-14-14 all-time in regular season matches against Crew SC, while clutching a slight 10-9-6 advantage in matches played in Columbus. Last season, the teams finished 1-1-1 in three meetings, with the Fire claiming a 4-2 win in a fifth-round U.S. Open Cup match.
Friday's match, scheduled for a 7 p.m. CT kickoff, is the first of three regular-season bouts between the two sides in 2015. The Men in Red host the return leg at Toyota Park on Wednesday, July 15 before returning to MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday, July 19.
Hear what else Yallop had to say in the video above.