The Columbus Crew are set to take on one of their biggest conference rivals, the Chicago Fire, Saturday at 8:30 p.m. The 48th match-up between the clubs is expected to be a barn burner, where the Crew is looking to strike first and walk away with three points.
“It’s one of the games that we circle on the calendar…everyone looks forward to it,” said goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum. “It’s one of those games you know it’s going to be intense. It’s going to be a heated battle.”
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Chicago and Columbus have a storied 47 game history built on conference rivalry, Midwestern rivalry and the fact that fans can easily travel for the match-ups, making both stadiums a heated battle in the stands as well as on the field.
“It gets loud,” said Gruenebaum. “It’s a great crowd…fun environment to play in. It makes it that much better.”
Another thing making the rivalry great is the many players that have worn jerseys on both sides of the pitch—16 total and none more talked about right now than Crew striker Dominic Oduro, who’s been responsible for the equalizers in both of the club’s last two draws. Oduro was traded to Columbus from Chicago in exchange for Dilly Duka in January. The two became the 15th and 16th players to play for both clubs.
Oduro understands the significance of the trade as he meets his former club for the first time wearing the Black & Gold, but it’s not a moment for him to prove anything to his former coaches or teammates, he said.
“The intensity of the rivalry is still the same. I’m still going to play my heart out. And at the end of the day, I’m playing for Columbus,” said Oduro, adding that scrutiny of one player can take the focus off the team as a whole—and right now, he said, the Crew is having a great start. “It’s about teamwork. It’s not about an individual. I’m just going to treat it like a regular MLS game.”
And that means the Crew will be battling hard for three points in Saturday’s match-up.
“It’d be amazing to walk out with three points and not just play for a draw,” said Gruenebaum. “It’s one of those games—if you can pull it off and win, it can change the momentum of the season.”
But to win, the Crew will have to stick to head coach Robert Warzycha’s plan: Strike first—no more playing from behind.
“In years past, there’s been a little let down early, going behind early and coming back. We don’t want to be that team. We want to play with a lead and really shut teams out,” said Gruenebaum. “We can stifle other team’s offensives. (And with our offensive game) we can be a really a dangerous team.”
Oduro agreed, saying that falling behind and coming back shows “how committed and dedicated we are” to earning points—but, every player walks on the field knowing and intending to strike first.
“It’s going to be a test,” said Oduro of Saturday’s 8:30 match-up, to see if the Crew can execute the strike first philosophy. “It’s going to be feisty. The best team that comes and competes is going to get the points.”
Gruenebaum said the key to winning Saturday is going to be containing Chicago’s scoring capabilities.
“Offensively, they’re a very dangerous team. They have a combination of speed and skill,” said Gruenebaum. “They’re not afraid to pull the trigger from a little bit of distance. They’re going to be a handful; especially at home.”
Gruenebaum said that Oduro has been playing well for the club and he hopes to see that continue against Oduro’s former squad—Oduro said it’s not just him, it’s his team, who’s welcomed him in Columbus and has made every effort to create a team atmosphere that inspires Black & Gold loyalty.
“The team is really good. (And the veteran players) know how to handle pressure, how to win and how to finish games,” said Oduro. “When it’s practice time or a game, we try to get a chemistry going on and off the field, which is critical. We have lunch, we have fun and at the end of the day you have that team bonding. It’s great to know they have my back.”
That, in fact, is what really drives Oduro—not the pressure of proving to Chicago what they lost, but rather, the loyalty of proving to his teammates that he belongs to something great.
“I have a hell of great group of guys behind me and a coaching staff who believes in me. I’m focused and I’m motivated right now. The sky’s the limit,” said Oduro. “That is the pressure and the compete I’m ready to achieve and just carry it through the season.”
You can watch the Crew take on Chicago at 8:30 p.m. Saturday on Fox Sports Ohio.