After losing to Monterrey at home in the final leg of the CONCACAF Champion's League Final on April 27 Real Salt Lake has not looked like the same team that was considered to be the class of MLS by many observers at the beginning of the season, myself included. A bit of a let down could be expected after the loss to Monterrey and it did come in the form of a 1-0 loss to the Portland Timbers on the road. That was followed by a 1-0 win at Chivas on May 7 that proved to be more devastating than the CCL final loss.
Central midfielder and playmaker Javier Morales left that match with a broken leg courtesy of a Marcos Mondaini tackle. The play which saw Mondaini subsequently receive a four match suspension is still causing problems for Jason Kreis' side. Without Morales RSL lacks the creative playmaker that made their midfield dangerous. Since that match, the 2009 MLS Cup Champions have gone 1-2-4 while only managing to score six goals in that time frame. One of those losses was a 2-1 result against Seattle which saw RSL's 29 game home undefeated streak in MLS play come to an end.
Kreis has not been able to find a suitable replacement for Morales opting for 2010 first round pick Collen Warner at the attacking mid spot during the last four matches. Warner has been underwhelming. The success of RSL over the last few seasons is due in part to the flexibility of their midfielders to play centrally and out wide. Andy Williams, Will Johnson, Arturo Alvarez, and Ned Grabavoy have been able to step in wherever needed but don't come close to providing the dimension that Morales does.
Alvarez is still not back from Gold Cup duty but Johnson is. Alvarez seems best suited to handle the central role but he is also listed as doubtful on the injury report. Williams is also an option in the central spot if Warner is benched. On the wings, Johnson got into the match this weekend against DC as a substitute so I'd expect he will be back and ready to resume the starting spot at left mid while Williams has started the last few matches at right mid. Kyle Beckerman is one of the top defensive midfielders in MLS and he can also cause damage in the offensive third if given the chance. That's still a solid midfield but not anywhere near as dangerous when you take Morales out of the equation.
Up front the forwards have struggled all season. Alvaro Saborio had a huge debut season in MLS in 2010 but so far has yet to tally one single goal in league play. Fabian Espindola leads the team with four goals and Paulo Jr. has chipped in with two but that's about it from the forwards. Jean Alexandre who has played a forward role in the last few matches will not be available due to a suspension handed down from MLS for a challenge on DC's Jed Zayner that went unpunished during the game. Saborio, who has missed the last few weeks due to Gold Cup action with Costa Rica has reportedly not rejoined the team yet and Paulo Jr. is injured so Kreis' options at forward are limited.
Defensively RSL has been oustanding allowing only eight goals on the entire season of MLS play. Yes.....eight. Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers are the best center back tandem in the league and Nick Rimando is one of the premier shot stoppers. Tony Beltran and Chris Wingert are the starters on the outside with Robbie Russell as the primary back up.
On the Fire's side Frank Klopas may have to do a bit of juggling with another match coming up on Sunday followed by a US Open Cup match next Tuesday. Josip Mikulic is ready to return to game action but it seems that Klopas will keep Yamith Cuesta and Cory Gibbs in the starting eleven for now. The USOC match on on July 28 is probably the better opportunity for getting Mikulic into a competitive match. Jalil Anibaba and Gonzalo Segares should return on the outside but Bratislav Ristic could see time at right back given the upcoming schedule congestion.
A midweek game may force a temporary change at the holding mid spot however. Logan Pause isn't fully recovered from taking a few lumps in New England over the weekend so RSL may be faced with a Daniel Paladini/Baggio Husidic or Paladini/Corben Bone combination without Pause in the line up. The Fire captain should be ready to step onto the pitch for the Sunday match with New York if he can't play against RSL. Marco Pappa has returned from Gold Cup duty with Guatemala but Klopas indicated he may not start on Wednesday night. If that's the case expect to see the Ghanian connection on the wings with Patick Nyarko and Dominic Oduro. The two combined to provide the Fire's only score in New England.
With Cristian Nazirit missing the next two matches due to suspension Orr Barouch should get a chance to showacse his talent in a starting role ahead of Diego Chaves. Barouch has been extremely dangerous in his last few appearances as a sub and deserves a shot in the first eleven with Nazirit sitting out and Gaston Puerari departed for Atlas.
CHICAGO FIRE -- OUT: MF Mike Banner (L Achilles tendinitis); DF Steven Kinney (R Achilles tendinitis); QUESTIONABLE: MF Marko Maric (L deltoid sprain); MF Logan Pause (R hamstring strain/concussion)
REAL SALT LAKE -- OUT: MF Javier Morales (L ankle fracture dislocation); DOUBTFUL: MF Arturo Alvarez (R hamstring strain); FW Paulo Jr. (L hamstring strain); DF Chris Wingert (R hamstring strain)
Real Salt Lake is struggling to find lost form and the Fire seem to be on the verge of finally finding theirs despite still managing to find only one victory in their last four matches after releasing Carlos De Los Cobos. Midweek travel amid recent struggles may indicate the Fire are catching RSL at the right time.
Fire 2 Real Salt Lake 1
Note : Oduro, Paladini, and Segares will be suspended for one match upon receipt of a yellow card in this match.
The Fire will honor CJ Brown on the field at the conclusion of the match.