Winners of two in a row, over traditional conference powers New York and Sporting Kansas City to boot, the Chicago Fire enters Crew Stadium boasting impressive attacking talent that has been in good form. Although Saturday will be Gregg Berhalter’s first taste of the rivalry between the Crew and the Fire, his past experience with two of Chicago's most important players might be the extra edge the Black & Gold need to get a result.
Mike Magee, last season's MLS MVP, scored twice last week in the Fire's win over Sporting. Berhalter was a teammate of Magee with the LA Galaxy from 2009-2011. The two finished first in the Western Conference for each of their three seasons in Los Angeles, winning the Supporters' Shield in 2010 and 2011. Berhalter and Magee also advanced to MLS Cup in 2011 with LA. As the reigning MLS MVP, Magee is certainly the focal point of the Fire attack and the Crew is aware of the need to slow him down on Saturday.
“Magee is a very elusive player … He’s a guy where you can’t quite get your hands on him in terms of where he plays on the field,” said Berhalter. “He positions himself really well, and he has very good vision in terms of when to make the run, where the space is and finding a pass.”
Lesser known is that Berhalter also has experience alongside Chicago’s young phenom Harry Shipp, whose three goals and four assists in nine matches have vaulted the Homegrown Player to the top of the Rookie of the Year discussion. Although Shipp is known for his stellar career at the University of Notre Dame, he spent parts of last summer training at Swedish club Hammarby IF, a club managed at the time by none other than Gregg Berhalter.
“He’s a guy I’ve admired for a while … I know him well, and I’ve always rated him highly. I think he’s a good player,” said Berhalter. “Similar to Magee, he’s elusive and he shows up in space, gets the ball in uncomfortable spots in the defense, and then attacks. We know that they have a very good attacking group.”
The Crew had to replace both Michael Parkhurst and Waylon Francis last weekend against Portland. While Berhalter said that he thought Tyson Wahl and Chad Barson did well in their wake, it will be a new test on Saturday, as Giancarlo Gonzalez is now away with Costa Rica as well. The Crew boss figures to have plenty of options as Tuesday’s friendly against Dayton saw possibilities Kevan George, Ben Sweat and Eric Gehrig all get playing time, in addition to a wildcard option such as Hector Jimenez, who played the second half at rightback.
“We have some decisions to make in terms of the lineup,” said Berhalter. “With our guys here, this group, the group that played [Tuesday against Dayton]—it’s good to see the combinations and see what the interaction is.”
The versatility of the players in question also figures to aid Berhalter. Barson played leftback against Portland, rightback against Dayton, and he was a central defender in college. Jimenez's run at rightback against Dayton suggests dropping him back is a possibility. Josh Williams has played centerback in the past (although Berhalter said that move wasn't an "immediate thought" last week), and Wahl can play outside or inside as well.
One of the players who got the call against Portland, Barson, thinks that his unit will be ready to go no matter who is inserted into the team this week.
“It’s obviously a big rivalry—Crew and Fire,” said the Homegrown defender. “No friendly acquaintances. It’s going to be a challenge; we know that. They’re a talented team. They have a very good attacking presence. The ability to get minutes as a backline [at Dayton] and to get more familiar with each other [was important]. Guys have been itching to play that haven’t had a lot of minutes so far, so I think we’ll be ready.”