If there is a match this season that RSL should be a no questions asked win, it would be hosting the Chicago Fire at home. Think about this, the Fire have scored just 6 goals so far this season, while surrendering 16, so their 2-7-1 record is no real surprise to anyone. I have for the last several seasons believe that the Fire were as good as Marco Pappa played, but now he is gone along with his 21 goals and 12 assists (his tally for the last 3 seasons). I thought the replacements brought in by the Fire would be able to lift the load, Jeff Larentowitcz is as tough as they come in MLS, and Joel Lindpere has been one of my favorites since entering the league, but neither seem to have found their groove with the Fire. Instead the Fire find themselves looking for an identity again, something this team seems to have done each year since the departure of Blanco.
Now is when Real Salt Lake need to get a streak going, everyone from the fans to the staff know that this stretch of 4 league matches at home with 3 against tough Western Conference opponents is going to be huge. What we can’t do is overlook the Chicago Fire, who actually have a winning record against RSL, 6-3-6 overall and 3-2-2 when playing us at home. At home this year RSL is 3-1-1 with just 6 goals scored and 4 goals allowed, the Fire are 0-4-1 on the road this year, with 1 goal scored and 9 allowed. Real Salt Lake is finally starting to look healthy but with a US Open Cup match looming next Tuesday, will the lineup reflect the 3 matches in 8 days they will be facing. If ever there was a trap game for RSL winners of 3 of their last 4 matches, it might be this one.
Nick Rimando – As the journey towards the All Time MLS Clean Sheet record progresses, Nick keeps racking up things like Save of the Week, he just picked up his second one of the season this week. So far this season Nick has picked up 3 clean sheets and has kept his GAA at 1.00, in his career he has faced the Fire 29 times with a 1.23 all time GAA, with RSL he has been in goal 10 times against the Fire with a 0.80 GAA. Perhaps one of the biggest nights outside of MLS Cup’s for Nick Rimando came on November 14th, 2009 when after 120 minutes of shutout soccer, Nick stood in goal for the PK shootout against the Fire at Toyota Park, 3 times he stopped them and that was enough for RSL to pick up the victory and move on to MLS Cup. I hope he doesn’t have to stop any PK’s on Saturday, but we have already seen him do so twice this season.
Javier Morales – It has been an interesting season for Javi, first the extended negotiations that eventually lead to his signing a new deal. Then it was surgery before the season, which lead to him missing early season action, but now that injury is behind him as he has racked up 9 appearances, including 7 starts. While the lineups around him have been different almost every match, he has slowly adjusted to whoever is around him and as his match fitness and sharpness have improved he has allowed us to remember that Javi of old. If we continue to see Javi stay healthy and develop the relationships with his new teammates that he has had in the past, it could be a very good thing for RSL.
Ned Grabavoy – If you have read my blog for long you know that I have often called for a more aggressive Ned, who last weekend showed his offensive abilities with two huge goals (the first and last). I often think Ned has looked for one more pass, trying to find a player who might be in a better position than himself, and that isn’t a bad thing, but sometimes taking the shot is the right thing. I hope that the results from last weekend will encourage Ned to take a few more chances, because by the looks of it RSL could use that as the season goes along.
Jeff Larentowicz – I love watching Jeff play on UniMas or the other Spanish language partners of MLS, it is hearing the announcers call him “Big Red”, it just sounds funny and somehow cool at the same time. On the pitch I don’t know of many players in MLS who are fiercer competitors, I have always respected that about him. He plays hard, physical and aggressive, but not dirty, I compare his style to that of our Kyle Beckerman. Nobody on the Fire roster has more experience against RSL than the 14 matches of Larentowicz, in over 1,200 minutes of action against RSL he has scored a goal and had an assist. While we may not know what to expect from a lot of the Fire players, with Jeff Larentowicz you get exactly what you always get, competition.
Sherjill MacDonald – Of all the DP signings in MLS, perhaps none has happened with less fanfare of MacDonald, none of the glitz and glamour, none of the headlines. Last year he only played in 12 matches, but he made an instant impact for the Fire with 4 goals and 4 assists, but 2013 hasn’t been nearly as kind. So far this season he has just 7 starts and just over 500 minutes of action, with no goals and just one assist. Perhaps the struggles of Fire can’t be any better encapsulated than in the struggles of Mac Donald, without players like Pavel Pardo and Marco Pappa behind him it just hasn’t been the same. Perhaps no player on the Fire roster will benefit more from the addition of Mike Magee, but thankfully that will likely happen after Saturday.
Sean Johnson – RSL have only once scored on Johnson, in four meetings, that is an impressive number for any keeper, let alone a young 23 year old keeper. Don’t let his age fool you, he has been in net 81 times for the Fire and already has 17 clean sheets and 31 wins. He has that prototype size at 6’ 3” that many scouts and coaches look for in a keeper, and that has also earned him the attention of Jurgen Klinsmann who called him into national team camp earlier this year and again this week. He will join the team after the match on Saturday, he will provide a true test for the RSL offense.
RSL’s building momentum vs. Chicago’s identity crisis – Beyond three wins in their last 4 matches, RSL has been seeing results from a very deep roster as younger players have stepped up to fill in for injuries, and have forced themselves into consideration for minutes on a weekly basis. Few expect names like Devon Sandoval, Olmes Garcia, and Carlos Salcedo to have multiple starts for the first team in the opening months of the season, but they have and I believe a lot of that youthful energy, passion and determination has served to help the entire squad play better. Now the question facing RSL is can they use that momentum to capture results at home?
Since the 2009 loss to RSL in the Eastern Conference playoffs and following departure of Cuauhtemoc Blanco, it has been a bit of a revolving door at the Fire as each year they seem to start the rebuilding process over again, and this year is no different. Gone are names like Cory Gibbs, Dominic Oduro, Marco Pappa and Pavel Pardo, in are names like Maicon Santos, Joel Linpere, Dilly Duka, and Jeff Larentowicz. Heck even this week the Fire are still making moves as they brought in Bakary Soumare and late Friday they added Mike Magee (for the rights to Robbie Rogers), as they continue to look for the combination that will help return them to their former glory days.
It will be a very interesting match between two teams that appear to be going in different directions, the Fire haven’t scored a goal in their last 3 matches, while RSL have scored 8 road goals in their last 3. So on paper this is a 3-0 RSL win, but things rarely go as planned, and against the Fire, only one match between these two in the last 3 seasons has featured more than a single goal. In MLS the home team wins more often than not, and even more so the team that scores first in a match most often wins. This year RSL is 5-1-1 when scoring first, just 1-4-1 when giving up the first goal, the Fire are 1-0-0 when scoring first and 1-7-0 when giving up the first goal.
Like most RSL matches you won’t want to leave early on Saturday, RSL has scored 7 goals in the final 15 minutes of matches, while giving up 4. The Fire have scored 3 (half of their total) in the final 15 minutes of matches and have also given up 4. I am going to stick with that 3-0 scoreline, but getting 3 past Johnson will be difficult.
That’s How I See It