What Are They All About? Real Salt Lake
This past weekend the Chicago Fire lost on the road against Toronto FC. The 3-0 scoreline accurately illustrated the match and the result has severely dented Chicago’s slim playoff hopes. Out-shot, out-possessed, out-passed, and outplayed, the Fire are in dire straits. A streak of five consecutive losses ties a club record achieved in their first MLS season and sets up the possibility of attaining yet another unwanted achievement under the stewardship of Veljko Paunovic and Nelson Rodriguez.
To further add insult to injury, reports from France indicate that Chicago transfer target Anime Bassi has turned down an offer from the Fire. The “number ten” that Rodriguez presumably alluded to in his media round table last week opted to stay with Ligue 2 side AS Nancy Lorraine (ASNL was relegated from Ligue 1 last season) rather than joining MLS, a decision that impacts Rodriguez’s narrative of the Fire as a club of choice. With the summer transfer window closing in just under a week, time is running out to secure the reinforcements required for Chicago to turn their fortunes around. However, the MLS schedule waits for no one and they’ll have to juggle their transfer possibilities with yet another three-match week. First on the docket, Real Salt Lake (9:00 CT on ESPN+).
Mike Petke and RSL will enter Saturday’s fixture on what can only be described as a head scratching dip in form but they will see this as an opportunity to right the ship. Two consecutive draws against two of the league’s worst teams, San Jose and Colorado, and a loss to playoff hopefuls Minnesota is a far cry from the side that beat SKC, Dallas, and New York earlier in the season. RSL is desperately trying to hold onto the sixth and final playoff spot in the West and three points is a must this weekend. The hosts will take solace in the fact that Chicago is playing in an Open Cup semi-final on Wednesday and will likely feature a weakened starting eleven. Will Petke and RSL overestimate a makeshift line up, or will Paunovic’s reserves seal Chicago’s playoff fate? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
RSL Form Guide (all competitions): D-D-L-W-W
Previous Result: A 0-0 away draw with San Jose.
Formation: 4-3-3; Rimando; Herrera, Glad, Silva, Lennon; Beckerman, Sunny, Rusnak; Plata, Baird, Savarino
Strengths: In a conference where second place and tenth place are separated by just ten points, holding onto a playoff spot for months at a time is quite an achievement. RSL’s ability to stay in the mix throughout the season is not pure happenstance. Let’s see where they might succeed this weekend.
Printers, Bank Accounts, and Refs, Oh My: If one is to become a successful coach in any sport, having the trust and loyalty of your players is key. There is perhaps no better example of such success than Mike Petke. Two weeks ago, the RSL coach went on a tirade against VAR and MLS referees that went viral and earned him a $10,000 fine from the league. The gist of the post-match interview was that there is no transparency in MLS when it comes to referee decisions or clear-cut criteria for VAR reviews. The interview was given almost exactly a year after Petke’s rant against referee decisions in the wake of his ejection from a match against Sporting Kansas City.
While he may have a flair for the dramatic, such actions on the part of Petke show that he lives and breathes the sport and will go to the ends of the earth to protect his players and the integrity of whatever club he works for. RSL is a decent MLS squad on paper, but year after year they are among the lowest ranked club in terms of expenditures and Petke must be commended for their continued success despite this handicap.
Chicago Fire II: Supporters have long wanted to see Chicago invest in a USL side. While it might not be exactly what they had in mind, they are likely to see that vision partially come to fruition on Saturday. The Fire have once again seen their season come down to a midweek match played in August as they travel to Philadelphia to take on the Union in the US Open Cup semi-final. This is a hurdle that they have been unable to pass since they made the final against Seattle in 2011.
Having touted “making a final” as part of a “championship side”, Nelson Rodriguez has forced Paunovic and his charges into a position where winning the semi and earning the right to host the final is paramount to the success of their season. Onlookers shouldn’t be surprised if the Fire lineup features the likes of Bronico, Corrales, Conner, Dean, Johnson, Cleveland, Tchani, and Adams. As further evidence of rotation, Chicago’s midweek player interview featured Alan Gordon. RSL’s confidence has to be off the charts heading into this one.
Oooo, Mountains: While we certainly aren’t experts in topography, RSL’s home record over the years seems to indicate that there is something to the theory of altitude impacting visiting sides. They’ve lost just once at Rio Tinto this season and just five time in the last three years. As a comparison, the Fire have more losses at home in this season alone. Furthermore, Chicago has not won in Utah since 2011 (courtesy of a Marco Pappa hat trick).
Weaknesses: Although we praised RSL’s ability to stay in the playoff mix above, a loss or a draw on Saturday would open up the door for them to be leapfrogged by Vancouver and Minnesota. Petke’s charisma can only carry a team so far and there are distinct shortcomings present in this side. Let’s see where RSL might struggle on Saturday.
What’s Movsisyan Up To?: As it stands, RSL is the only play-off position side that does not have a player with nine or more goals on it. Their leading goal scorer, Joao Plata, currently sits on six goals while Rusnak, Baird, and Silva have tallied five. Interestingly, they are in the top quarter of MLS sides in terms of shots, shots on goal, and chances created but have scored one or fewer goals on fourteen occasions this season. For whatever reason, they just can’t put goals away.
We’ve Won Before the Starting Whistle: As was alluded to above, there are a few results that this RSL side will want back when they reflect on their season. Aside from the recent run of form, losses to the likes of Philadelphia, Orlando, and Toronto cannot be confidence inspiring. It is as if they believe that “lower” opposition is not worth their effort. Chicago’s losing streak might just be snapped by underestimation on RSL’s part.
Prediction: If Chicago is truly serious about competing for trophies they will realize that the US Open Cup is their only chance at silverware this season. Veljko Paunovic will send a USL-esque side out to face RSL to give the Fire the best chances possible against Philadelphia on Wednesday. Real Salt Lake 4-1 Chicago Fire. Plata, Rusnak, Beckerman, and Savarino for the hosts, Alan Gordon for the visitors.