With only eight matches remaining in the 2010 season it's do or die time for the Chicago Fire. The team's failure to pick up wins against Toronto and Philadelphia last week places even more importance on their ability to pick up points against top teams like RSL. There seemed to be a ramped up sense of urgency around the team this week as the "games in hand" advantage begins to disappear. Sam Stejskal's article today looks at the efforts made during the week to get it together quickly and the renewed intensity surrounding the team.
Getting a result at Rio Tinto Stadium is no small feat. The defending champions are currently riding a 23 game home unbeaten streak. A result on Saturday will produce a new MLS record in that department. Despite the streak, RSL is dealing with issues of their own.
Central playmaker Javier Morales is suspended after kneeing Seattle's Osvaldo Alonso in the nether region. Forward Fabian Espindola is out with an hamstring injury, leading scorer Alvaro Saborio is questionanle with an ankle strain, midfielder Ned Grabavoy is battling an illness, and right back Robbie Russell left Wednesday's Champions League match against Toronto with a concussion. Russell has returned to practice and is not listed on the official injury report.
Fixture congestion may soon become an issue for Jason Kreis as well. Kreis plans to go all out in Champions League play as evidenced by the strong line up featuring most of the starters on Wednesday night. The team will also travel to Panama to take on Arabe Unido this coming Wednesday before returning home to play Colorado next weekend.
Fortunately for Kreis, his team boasts a solid line up with capable back ups. Nat Borchers and Jamison Olave are outstanding in central defense while Aurora, IL native Mike Shuler impressed in his MLS debut last week against Seattle. Chris Wingert will probably pair with Tony Beltran as the fullbacks if Russell is not available.
Without Morales, Salt Lake will likely employ a combination of interchangeable pieces in former Fire Andy Williams and Will Johnson, Nelson Gonzalez, and Grabavoy with Kyle Beckerman more than capably manning the holding mid spot. Beckerman is the type of player that is missing from the Fire's starting eleven. An outstanding two way defensive midfielder who can ignite and join the attack if needed while not sacrificing defensive responsibilities. RSL's turnaround as a franchise began with the acquisition of Beckerman via trade from Colorado in exchange for Mehdi Ballouchy in 2007.
Fire faithful are all too familiar with Nick Rimando in the Salt Lake net.
Carlos De Los Cobos moved Deris Umanzor to right back in training this week due to injuries to Dasan Robinson and Steven Kinney. Robinson is doubtful while Kinney is listed as probable but I'm half expecting to see Umanzor get the nod. CJ Brown should return to the starting eleven next to Wilman Conde after taking a beating against TFC and sitting out against Philadelphia. Gonzalo Segares will resume the spot at left back after serving a two game red card suspension.
The Fire showed some life in the second half of the Philadelphia game when Freddie Ljungberg was moved in to the central attacking role ahead of Castillo and a second forward. This should be the Fire's best option moving forward if they are to salvage what's left of the season. Marco Pappa is ready to return and looked good in training according to De Los Cobos. Patrick Nyarko should fill out the other wing if he is not playing an advanced role as the coach implied he could. The Fire desperately need Nyarko to find the form he was displaying before missing time with concussion issues. A diamond midfield shape with Ljungberg and Pause in the center of the pitch should be implemented in lieu of the 4-5-1 formation which has grown stale and provided little consistency. Furthermore, without John Thorrington the five man midfield lacks bite. Thorrington has been upgraded to doubtful for this match with a hamstring strain.
De Los Cobos was mulling a few forward combinations going into this match, but I'm expecting to see Castillo and Collins John up top. DLC commented on John's improved form in training after practice on Wednesday.
If the Fire can somehow win this match and end the streak it could serve as a massive shot in the arm and renewed optimism possibly leading to the playoff push everyone has been waiting for. The first encounter in Chicago was decided on a questionable penalty kick call and RSL was victorious 1-0 although the Fire did not play badly.
The Fire will battle and play a close, aggressive match against the defending champions unfortunately ending in more of the same.
RSL 1 Fire 0
The Rest of The Weekend
Crew 1 Seattle 0 - Seattle is staggering and Columbus is in the Supporter's Shield hunt. The Crew are expecially tough at home. Seattle is looking like the best bet to drop out of the playoffs out of the current "eight".
Houston 1 Toronto FC 1 - There are bigger problems in Toronto that simply firing Mo Johnston and Preki won't fix. TFC's playoff hopes are on life support.
Colorado 2 New England 0 - Colorado needs to take care of the gimmes ahead of a road vist to Real Salt Lake.
Los Angeles 2 DC 0 - There should be no question about this one.
Chivas 1 Kansas City 0 - Kansas City needs wins to keep hope alive but Chivas is improved and should handle the Wizards at home.
A Real American Hero
Fans at Toyota Park may have noticed a banner in Section 8 depicting a Brian McBride mug shot imposed over a GI Joe style logo reading "McBride". I thought it was pretty cool and now it's available in t-shirt form at Section 8's website.
Because Too Much Soccer Is Never Enough
Sports blog website SB Nation now has a Fire blog up and running called Hot Time in Old Town.