What Are They All About? Real Salt Lake
A point is a point is a point is a point. The Chicago Fire rebounded from a lackadaisical first half against Columbus Crew SC this past weekend to dominate the second half and leave Ohio with a draw. David Accam opened his account for the season in the 73rd minute while Nemanja Nikolic showed his quality, but just missed out on etching his name onto the score sheet. There was some suspect defending and some rusty passing but the seemingly imminent signature of Ryan Taylor and more time together for the squad should remedy those shortcomings. As they make necessary tweaks and continue along the path to progress Chicago will welcome Real Salt Lake to Toyota Park for their first home match of the season this Saturday at 1pm CT (CSN Chicago or just go to the stadium).
RSL drew their first match of the season as well and although they will rue missed chances to take all three points at home, stopping one of last year’s MLS Cup finalists provided some solace in what is looking to be another rebound season for them. A mass exodus of eleven players and the signing of ten replacements seems to be the norm for some teams in MLS but rarely do the departing players have as many significant minutes with a club or as many seasons with the side as some of the names on RSL’s list. Another sixth-place finish and early playoff exit will not be acceptable for a club and a fan base used to long post season runs. This match will be seen as an opportunity to make a statement of intent for both sides. Will RSL continue an undefeated run against Chicago that stretches back to September of 2011, or will Chicago’s famed front six live up to the hype and snag all three points? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
RSL’s Last Match: 0-0 home draw against TFC.
Previous Formation: 4-3-3: Rimando; Beltran, Horst, Schuler, Wingert; Sunny, Beckerman Allen; Rusnak, Movsisyan, Plata
Strengths: There is certainly something to be said about the consistency RSL has shown over the last decade. After a rocky start in MLS, RSL has gone on to miss out on just one post season since 2007. They’ve often achieved success without spending as much as other flashier teams and really carved out their own niche in the mountains of small market Salt Lake City, averaging over 18,000 attendees per match over their twelve-year history. Let’s take a look at where they can succeed on Saturday.
Mas Plata (Get it?): RSL announced a contract extension and an elevation to DP status for Joao Plata just before the season got started. He celebrated his new influx of cash by getting a new hairdo and hopes to reflect his appreciation on the field. Although looking at Plata’s stats does not raise many eyebrows (33 goals and 35 assists in 141 career MLS appearances), his on-field production cannot be relegated to a series of numbers. His speed on and off the ball rivals that of Accam, Oduro, etc., and his technical ability ensures that he requires multiple defenders covering him. He stretches the play and opens up space for others while frequently reminding onlookers that he has quite the finishing capability. Fire fans need to look no further than the disastrous 3-2 home loss against RSL in May of 2014 to be reminded of the skill set Plata possesses. Despite leading 2-0 in the 72nd minute, lost that match on the back of two Plata goals and his heavy involvement in the build up to the third. Plata will surely be looking to add to his career total of three goals and three assists against Chicago. He should be a terror for the right side of the Fire’s defense.
The Youth is Our Future: Jeff Cassar seems to have gotten the message that RSL was old and broken. The decision to revamp the squad in a way that will allow them to solidify as a unit over the coming years is reflected in the DP signing of 22 year old Slovak international Albert Rusnak from Groningen (MLS is highlighting this as the ex-Groningen derby), the loan return of RSL youth product and current CONCACAF champion Brooks Lennon from Liverpool, a larger squad role for Jordan Allen, the reintegration of Sebastian Saucedo after his return from Liga MX, and the inclusion of two homegrowns in the eighteen on match day one.
All eyes will be on Rusnak specifically as he looks to justify the transfer fee and DP tag RSL bestowed upon him. Whether a 4-2-3-1 is utilized like in the match against TFC or a 4-3-3 is implemented like in most of their preseason matches, Rusnak will be given the freedom to roam and the responsibility to create in front of the midfield anchor duo of Beckerman and Sunny. He has already been given the task of taking set pieces, he was vocal throughout the encounter with TFC, and his first shot in MLS was almost the difference in the match as it just skimmed past the post early in the first half.
Fine Wine: We need to put the youth movement in tension with the fact that Rimando and Beckerman still play for this side and add that RSL picked up David Horst and Chicago Fire legend Chad “Field Goal” Barrett through MLS’ free agent mechanism. There is a wealth of knowledge, an extensive understanding of the league, and perhaps one last chance to prove worth for some of this RSL squad. If properly taken care of an aged Parusso Barolo can provide complexity not originally present, but if it is improperly stored or kept past its prime you may as well have vinegar. We think this RSL vintage is at its prime and we could see quite a gritty battle among MLS veterans in this one. Beckerman himself alluded to the challenge of playing against Juninho and McCarty as a motivating factor for him leading up to the match.
History: Chicago hasn’t won a home opener since their 1-0 2012 win over the Philadelphia Union (courtesy of a Dominic Oduro header off of a Marco Papa cross). We’d like to think that history changes, but last week didn’t prove that…
Weaknesses: While we wouldn’t want to take away from the injection of speed, youth, and exuberance listed above, this RSL team is also one that will struggle with questions of identity. Jeff Cassar has lived in the shadow of club legend Jason Kreis ever since he took charge of the team and with the exodus of some storied RSL players, there will be a lot of questions about chemistry, long term leadership, and MLS readiness. Let’s take a look at where they might struggle on Saturday.
Departures: Among the stand out names that left the club are Jamison Olave, Javier Morales, Olmes Garcia, and Burrito Martinez. The first three combined for 540 RSL appearances and Burrito was touted to be the next Morales before he and the club mutually terminated his contract. While fresh faces can provide opportunities for improvement, it’s not as if Martinez and Morales were unneeded, or unwanted. RSL and Morales couldn’t agree on guaranteed minutes, squad role, or salary despite both parties alluding to interest in continuing the relationship and Martinez was allowed to return to Argentina due to the homesickness experienced by the Engache’s family. With those two gone there is a lack of natural creativity coming from the midfield and we’ll have to wait and see if Rusnak is up to the challenge. The youngster admitted that his first match was quite the learning experience and the jury is still out on his adjustment capabilities. Cassar was asked midweek where he thinks the team has struggled in preseason and in the first match, and without hesitation he talked about chance creation in terms of providing a final ball. An area which was a strength for RSL last season has become problematic with their departures.
Who Needs a Cohesive and Healthy Backline?: Cassar will have a headache when it comes to picking an eleven for Saturday. Many of the decisions and scenarios will be dictated not by tactics or formation but rather by availability. After training on Thursday Cassar revealed that neither Chris Schuler nor Justen Glad would travel to Chicago. They join fellow defenders Aaron Maund and Demar Phillips on the injury list, meaning that Cassar might be rethinking his decision to not sign Olave to an extension. We could see a backline featuring rookie Justin Schmidt and a bench without an true defender on it. Cassar said he is fully confident in Schmidt’s ability to start if need be, but you could almost hear the shaking in his voice as he said it. David Accam usually looks forward to running at the backline but he will especially love this scenario.
Rio Tinto is a Fortress: Why is this a heading for a weaknesses column? Well, RSL isn’t playing at Rio Tinto and the comforts of home seem to be a key factor to their success. RSL entered the 2016 playoffs with the fewest road wins of any Western Conference team last season (just four) and the joint worst road point total of any playoff team in MLS (fourteen). If there’s any reason to hope that Chicago can overcome history it has to be this arbitrary observation…
Sweet Home Chicago: The Men in Red will have had the luxury of training in the conditions that are sure to feature on Saturday. It will be cloudy, with a high of 29, and 10 mph winds. That’s quite the rude awakening for some of the RSL players and Chicago will hope to use that to their advantage. Cassar mentioned in his midweek press conference that the weather will force his side to play “smart and safe” in conditions they aren’t used to. While he may be drawing up a plan for three points, deep down both he and the players will certainly be happy with a draw and a quick return home.
Prediction: At the start of the season we made it known that seven points from the first three matches should be the goal for Chicago. A tough fought draw in Columbus is not a bad result but it needs to be followed up with a home win. The clock is ticking on the Process’ viability. Chicago 3-1 RSL. An Accam brace and a Juninho bombaso follow a nervous opening goal from Plata.