PREVIEW: Crew SC host Chicago to open 2017

COLUMBUS - This Saturday — officially Matchday 1 for Columbus Crew SC and most of Major League Soccer — will be chiseled into the history books. The 2017 MLS regular season opener against the Chicago Fire, presented by MAPFRE Insurance, will serve as the earliest home opener ever played at MAPFRE Stadium, it will debut the 2017 Primary Jerseys and new Jersey Partner Acura as part of a historic partnership agreement, and it will be a showdown between two Eastern Conference foes looking to rebound in 2017.

Both Columbus and Chicago enter the regular season unbeaten after all-around impressive preseasons.

Crew SC raised the 2017 Carolina Challenge Cup after going 2-0-1 against MLS-expansion side Atlanta United, USL-side Charleston Battery and the defending MLS Cup champion Seattle Sounders. With four goals scored in three matches — including a brace by Federico Higuain, a Nico Naess-forced own goal and a tournament-winner by SuperDraft first-round selection Niko Hansen — Crew SC allowed only two goals across 270 minutes of action.

The Fire participated in six preseason matches against opponents from the NCAA, USL, NASL and MLS in a span of three weeks. The 2016 bottom finishers underwent a massive retooling in the offseason — adding MLS veteran midfielders Dax McCarty and Juninho, European forward Nemanja Nikolic, Uruguayan goalkeeper Jorge Rodrigo Bava and a few Homegrown Players. The expectations for Chicago's 2017 are higher than 2016, but the team's trajectory is yet to be seen.

According to contributor Sam Stejkal:

Finishing last in 2016 also gave Chicago the assets to pull off two other big moves this winter. Because they finished 20th last year, the Fire netted the No. 3 selection in the Allocation Ranking Order and in the SuperDraft, behind only Atlanta and Minnesota. They sent the No. 3 spot in the Allocation Order, General Allocation Money and a second-round draft pick to Minnesota for the No. 2 spot in the Allocation Order to nab former LA Galaxy midfielder Juninho on loan from Tijuana on Dec. 23, bolstering a central midfield that had been a weak spot at Toyota Park for years.

A few days after sending the No. 3 overall selection in the draft to New York City FC in exchange for $250,000 in General Allocation Money, the Fire strengthened that position even further. In perhaps the most surprising move of the winter, Chicago sent $400,000 in GAM to New York in exchange for Red Bulls captain and midfield facilitator Dax McCarty on Jan. 16. The move completed Chicago’s offseason midfield upgrade, giving them two All-Star caliber players in a spot where Matt Polster and Razvan Cocis got the majority of minutes last year.

Not that Chicago had a perfect winter. The club mostly failed to address their leaky backline, which gave up 58 goals in 2016, tied for the second-most in the league. They also are a bit unsettled in net after sending longtime starter Sean Johnson to Atlanta, who subsequently traded him to NYCFC after landing Guzan. I think their roster is screaming for a true No. 10 as well, though Chicago could address that by buying down a Designated Player using Targeted Allocation Money and signing another DP in the summertime.

But the Fire’s front six is now legitimately solid. Nikolic seems like a solid piece up top, McCarty and Juninho (who, it should be noted, will have to figure out how to best partner each other) are excellent midfield anchors and forward Michael de Leeuw and wingers David Accam and Arturo Alvarez totaled 21 goals and 17 assists in 72 combined appearances last year. I’m not sure if they’ll make the playoffs in 2017, but a third straight last-place finish is not in the cards for this group.

Crew SC, on the other hand, finished 2016 just above Chicago and just six points off the MLS playoffs red line. The Black & Gold also underwent a roster reconstruction, adding a second Designated Player (Jonathan Mensah), all four MLS SuperDraft selections (Hansen, Lalas Abubakar, Logan Ketterer and Connor Maloney) and seven other defensively minded midfielders or backliners.

In the attack, the return to health of the string-pulling Higuain is primed to force opponents to pick their poison on either wing or through the middle. Speedsters Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram are expected to flank Golden Boot contender Ola Kamara or the equally efficient Adam Jahn. All in all, the Crew SC style of play will not change: Berhalter will have his side show strength in possession and chances created — the undetermined result of those chances and the defensive resilience will be the story of 2017.

MAPFRE Stadium's gates will open at 12:30 p.m. ET for Saturday's 2 p.m. ET kickoff. The first 10,000 supporters in the gates will receive a free MAPFRE Insurance Crew SC key chain, and Saturday will be the general public's first chance to purchase the club's new 2017 Primary Jersey (while limited supplies last).

The 2017 Major League Soccer and Crew SC regular season opens on March 4 against the Chicago Fire at MAPFRE Stadium, presented by MAPFRE Insurance. The full Crew SC preseason and regular schedule can be downloaded and synced on iOS and Android devices.

LATEST CREW KITS: The official jerseys featuring Nationwide Children's Hospital are out now!