What Are They All About? Real Salt Lake
Back to the drawing board. Last Tuesday the Chicago Fire Soccer Club was ousted from the US Open Cup by USL Championship side Saint Louis FC. The 2-1 road defeat against lower division opposition looks embarrassing enough on paper but the fact of the matter is that the performance was worse than the outcome itself. A lack of ideas, an absence of commitment and passion, missing identity in the wake of player absences, and a sheer tactical collapse without appropriate response from the coaching staff typified the Fire’s evening. Heated exchanges between players and fans in the aftermath of the loss replaced the hoped-for jubilation supporters had envisioned as they made the ten-hour round trip down I-55.
In a sense, the evening was a microcosm of the 2019 campaign thus far. On a grander scale, the loss sketched the contours of Nelson Rodriguez’s four-year process better than any phrases he has or could hope to coin in his media round tables. The MLS schedule will resume this coming weekend after an international break and Chicago will play RSL on Saturday at SeatGeek Stadium knowing that they are just one point out of the playoff picture (7:00 CT on ESPN+). The reality, however, is that their distance from the upper echelons of MLS cannot be measured in points. With just 50% of the season gone it looks like the wheels are falling off once again for a Chicago side that has scraped by for over a decade. Ephemeral grasping at seventh place should not be seen as lofty expectations for the Fire. Each year we seem to hit a point where the previews here are more about Chicago’s introspection rather than their opponents’ attributes, sadly this year that point has come early once again. Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
RSL Form Guide (All Competitions): L-L-L-W-W
Previous Result: A 3-0 home loss to LAFC in the US Open Cup.
Formation: 4-5-1; Rimando; Brody, Silva, Holt, Toia; Baird, Luiz, Beckerman, Kreilach, Schmitt; Johnson
Strengths: Although they haven’t mirrored the RSL sides of the mid-2000s quite yet, this current iteration of the team is aspiring to put the small market franchise back on the map. A couple of years of mediocrity were deemed unacceptable and Dell Loy Hansen, Craig Waibel, and Mike Petke got to work on creating a sustainable plan for success. Let’s see where they have succeeded.
The Freakin’ Coach: The tactical astuteness, man management, and personality of Mike Petke has taken this RSL side to heights that their squad should not be achieving on paper. After getting a lay of the land in 2017 in the wake of a bizarre dismissal from New York Red Bull, Petke took the Claret and Cobalt to the Western Conference semifinals last season—a milestone thought beyond their reach by most pundits. A side that has not traditionally spent big—RSL has consistently been in the bottom quarter of budget spending since entering the league in 2005—Petke has needed to rely on other avenues of building. Long time RSL captain Kyle Beckerman encapsulated it best in an interview with the Salt Lake Tribune earlier this summer, “He can be the rah-rah coach, can get us pumped up. He can get into us, and really let us have it. He’s a motivator and a tactician.”
Famous for post-match press conference laden with quotable snippets, Petke has always been a fiery character, but that has not detracted from the fact that he is one of the best American coaches in the game. Extensive film sessions, tactical responses to each opponent, lineup changes based on merit, and accepting nothing less than a player’s all have come to typify the New York native. He has also been known to defend his players to the bitter end, fines be damned.
Are You Sure You’re Not Argentine?: With five goals and two assists, Albert Rusnak leads RSL in both categories on the season. While neither stat is all too impressive on its own, Rusnak’s ability on the ball certainly is. He has played all over the pitch for Petke this season, creating from midfield, taking players on one v. one from the wing, playing underneath Johnson as a second striker, and even adding a bit of tracking-back defensively to his game. He certainly has earned the salary increase that he held out for last season and arguably could have asked for more. If the Fire’s back line is as stagnant as it has been recently, they’ll be in trouble on Saturday.
Weaknesses: The top three sides in the West have looked untouchable so far this season. The middle of the pack, however, has seemingly been caught up in a game of “no, you go ahead”. With the likes of Minnesota, San Jose, Vancouver, and even Kansas City all vying for the last two playoff spots, RSL does not find itself in good company. There are reasons why their place in the standings is what it is. Let’s take a look.
Does Chicharito Have a Cheaper Brother?: A quick glance at the league standings will show you that this RSL side has scored just twenty-one goals on the season. While this isn’t atrocious, only Atlanta has scored fewer goals while retaining a playoff position. Mike Petke’s side also ranks in the bottom three for shot attempts among current playoff teams, have the lowest xGoals per game of any current playoff team, and are on a trajectory to become one of only two playoff teams to finish with a negative goal differential in the regular season.
When you add the fact that RSL has not traditionally spent major money on DPs—just one of their current three has that designation based on salary—and that their current DP forward, Sam Johnson, has not produced at the level they would have hoped, RSL looks in trouble for the near future when it comes to goal-scoring. Chicago’s beleaguered back line might be in for some much needed respite this weekend.
We Only Play Well at Altitude: Heading into Saturday’s encounter, RSL has lost six road matches on the season, a tally only surpassed by FC Cincinnati. With just seven road points total they sit in the bottom quarter of the league of points accrued away from home. Their two victories on the road came against bottom dwellers Colorado and Cincy, a fact that makes the remainder of their road form all the less impressive. Yes, MLS is a league in which road points are not easy to come across, but RSL’s 2019 campaign has left a lot to be desired.
5-0 and 4-0 blowouts against DC and New York Red Bulls respectively also add a tint of struggle against Eastern Conference opponents specifically. Conversely, Chicago has not lost at home in their last seven encounters, a stretch that goes back to March’s defeat against Seattle. It may not be statistically reliable, but such trends tend to influence results in this league.
A Lack of Momentum: Recent results do not paint RSL in a good light. A 3-0 thrashing at the hands of LAFC at home in the Open Cup and two consecutive league losses have seen them ousted from one competition and drop three places in the league standings. Sure, they were missing players due to international call ups but coming back into a side that has demonstrably changed and had its shoulders slump won’t be easy either. The manner of those losses will also weigh heavily on the players. A breakdown in tactical soundness against LAFC and a defensive collapse against Red Bull will leave Petke with a sour taste in his mouth no matter what he says publicly. If Chicago can score early in this one, the points are there to be had.
Savari-no: Jefferson Savarino has had another standout season for RSL. Utilizing the “young designated player” mechanism, Waibel snagged the youngster from the Venezuelan Primera in 2017. After adjusting to the league with a respectable six goals and five assists in half a season, the 2018 campaign saw the creative midfielder score seven goals and notch eleven assists. This season he’s come to the rescue on numerous occasions—most recently, a stoppage time game winning goal against Atlanta. His play has earned him a supposed bid from Newcastle United who continue to raid MLS for talent after signing Miguel Almiron next season.
Why is he in the weaknesses column you ask? He’ll be missing on Saturday as he continues to play for Venezuela in the Copa America. Likely joining him in absence will be Joao Plata as he awaits a move to Liga MX, Jordan Allen (season ending injury), and Tony Beltran (knee injury); selection headaches that Petke didn’t need.
Prediction: Predicting results for the Fire this season has become an impossible task. Given RSL’s struggles highlighted above, Chicago should win this match at home. However, recent months have shown that “should” and “will” are anything but congruent categories for Veljko Paunovic and his charges. Chicago 2-2 RSL. Przemek Frankowski and CJ Sapong for the hosts. Sam Johnson and Albert Rusnak for the visitors.