OBETZ, Ohio – Columbus Crew defender Eric Gehrig has a unique perspective on the rivalry between his club and the Chicago Fire, one which resumes Saturday at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Ill. (8:30 pm ET, watch LIVE online).
Gehrig followed the Fire from their inaugural 1998 season, when they won the MLS Cup and US Open Cup, and his family were longtime season-ticket holders.
The 24-year-old lived in the Chicago suburb of Schererville, Ind., and later played for the Fire’s Premier Development League team.
“That was the place to be if you were a young soccer player in the area,” he said.
But it was the Crew who signed the former Loyola Chicago standout in 2011, and he’s looking forward to going home for an important Eastern Conference match.
Fire preview their matchup with Columbus
“Growing up, I remember when Columbus came to town the crowd was a little more into it,” Gehrig said. “The stands were a little more packed. Being on both sides, I know there’s bad blood going both ways.”
Gehrig will have close to 100 family members and friends – including former coaches and kids he coached in the offseason – at Saturday’s game.
What he doesn’t know is if he’ll be playing. After recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and a collapsed lung in April, Julius James may make his season debut at center back in place of Gehrig.
It could be a bittersweet homecoming for Gehrig, who did not make the travel squad for last year’s game at Chicago but went on his own.
“I’ve definitely had this circled on my calendar,” he said. “I’ve been working my butt off – I have been the whole year – to put myself in the best position to play.”
Gehrig has the strongest ties to the Fire on the Crew but he’s not the only one: Rich Balchan, Ethan Finlay, Danny O’Rourke and Kirk Urso have all played for the Fire’s PDL team over the years.
Finlay’s stint with the squad came two years ago. At the time, he was still at Creighton University, and Carlos de los Cobos was still the first-team coach in Chicago.
“I had seen his coaching style and wasn’t necessarily his biggest fan,” Finlay said of de los Cobos. “I wasn’t overly impressed how the organization was run. … It was a good experience to get a look at their first team as well as into the organization. Ultimately it was good because I got to play with MLS players before I was in the league.”
De los Cobos was replaced 13 months ago by Frank Klopas, who in 1998 scored the overtime goal to defeat the Crew in the US Open Cup final and won his first game as interim coach on June 12, 2011, against Columbus.
While the Crew are on a 3-0-3 streak, they will have to do without midfielder Milovan Mirosevic (adductor strain) for the third time in four matches. Forward Aaron Schoenfeld (foot), however, will be available for the first time since April 28.