Prime Your Fire Pump: Chicago Fire vs. Real Salt Lake

Chicago Fire hope to turn smiles like these upside down on Saturday night (photo: desertnews.com)

Chicago Fire hope to turn smiles like this upside down on Saturday night (photo: desertnews.com)

OTF’s Jon Denham searches for a path to points, and Wes Brown reminds us what makes Real Salt Lake tick…

Who doesn’t love a spring break once in a while? After all, another stoppage time penalty kick disaster sort of requires a cooling off period. Maybe time off will turn out to be just what the doctor ordered for Chicago Fire.

The team is once again sputtering out of the gate as the calendar turns to May, and the schedule only gets tougher. A run of four games against clubs currently sitting in playoff spots begins Saturday night against the Western Conference’s third best team and 2013 MLS Cup finalist, Real Salt Lake. 

While Chicago’s core remains healthy, starting forward Quincy Amarikwa will be out of the limelight (if for only 90 minutes) due to his mandatory one game suspension, earned after receiving a red card last time out. With just six points earned in his first seven games, I’m officially declaring Frank Yallop’s honeymoon period over.

Manager Frank Yallop's toughest test of the season is Saturday night, and the rest of May isn't any easier.

Manager Frank Yallop’s toughest test of the season is Saturday night, and the rest of May doesn’t get much easier with NYRB, SKC, and first place Columbus looming.

Amarikwa’s short films, Twitter contests, and fantasy prowess are cute, but they don’t translate to winning. USL Pro affiliations are fun to speculate about, but they don’t help you climb the Eastern Conference standings, where the Fire currently sit bottom. 

No one said 2014 was going to be easy. On one hand, there’s a new manager, an influx of young and seemingly talented players, and a revamped back like that requires some actual game time to come together. On the other hand, you’ve got the league MVP, a goalkeeper who regularly trains with the U.S. National Team, and a captain with plenty of MLS experience. 

Looking at the facts of the matter, Fire Nation is more than capable of classifying what it sees as good or bad, acceptable or unacceptable, from 30,000 feet. But what about from a seat at Toyota Park or the couch at home? What the fans see under the #cf97 microscope 90 minutes at a time for the next few weeks will either pique our interest in what the summer could hold, or give us whiplash as we turn away from the lens of said microscope in disgust.

Some points this month would go a long way in keeping the collective mood stable. A convincing win over one or two of the teams on the May docket will go much further. Grinding out points isn’t all that endearing if it isn’t accompanied with an occasional gut punch to a quality opponent.

Lineup & Tactics

Frank Yallop has a few things to consider heading into his fourth home match of the season. The first priority is replacing the suspended Quincy Amarikwa. His productivity can’t be overlooked. Here’s how I believe the Fire is best suited to take on an unbeaten RSL side with no chance for #QuincyTime…

Gonzalo Segares isn't ready for the first XI just yet, and Mike Magee may get pushed higher

Gonzalo Segares isn’t ready for the first XI just yet, and Mike Magee will need to push higher.

Mike Magee is the best fit for Quincy Amarikwa’s spot, and Matt Watson needs to be on the field to combat RSL’s midfield. Hence, my 4-2-3-1.

The back four remains intact. Gonzalo Segares isn’t ready for the first XI despite his rehab progress. All signs point to his availability, but I don’t see how he plays any more than 45 minutes off the bench on Saturday night, if at all.

Jeff Larentowicz will be the key to getting a result. RSL’s narrow, attack-minded midfield means Red must remain disciplined and snuff out attacks. Adding Matt Watson as a partner in crime to carry out this task makes sense. Once the Fire’s holding midfield duo wins the ball, they must use Harry Shipp, Patrick Nyarko, Greg Cochrane, and Lovel Palmer as first-pass outlets to spring the forward attack. Benji Joya and Magee will do their best to unbalance the Salt Lake back line.

My bench: Reynish; Segares, Ianni; Pause, Alex, Pineda; Anangonó

Prediction to argue about in the comments section below…

Chicago Fire (1), Real Salt Lake (2)

There just isn’t enough going right for the Fire at this point (even with the extra rest) to take down the league’s last unbeaten side. Javier Morales and Ned Grabavoy goals spark RSL. Mike Magee returns to the stat sheet with another strike.

My 2014 record = 1-6

Wes Brown on the Kings of Utah

Hey, Chicago! Think you’re going to take advantage of a team in flux just because of a coaching change? Think again. RSL are continuing their 2013 success as the only undefeated team remaining in MLS this season (3-0-5). Moreover, RSL is only one of four teams with a positive road goal differential (+1). Conclusion: the Fire’s early season sputterings are going to need to be bridged big time to get all three points here, even at Toyota Park.

Danger will appear on all fronts. Nick Rimando between the pipes means killer shot-stopping, a super-organized back line, and all-around athletic heroics. Don’t count on getting much by the guy; he’s an early front-runner for Goalkeeper of the Year.

With Joao Plata now back in the lineup, he and Alvaro Saborio are going to be difficult for Chicago’s sketchy back four to defend against. The two are again showing they’re a great tandem. Proof is in their goal-scoring tendencies — one every 38 minutes they play together.

(photo: sltrib.com)

(photo: sltrib.com)

Newcomer Luke Mulholland is a wildcard for the Fire. His two-way play is some of the best in the league, and he’s ably filling in for the injured Luis Gil. Mulholland’s a terror on set-piece delivery, and his tenacious attacking means the Fire defense better clean up and prevent second chances.

Provided it’s a close game, there is one way I see Chicago repeating a result similar to the 1-1 draw at Rio Tinto in 2013: Apply heavy pressure late in the match. Both San Jose and Vancouver were able to rescue a point this season by doing so. Overloading RSL’s half in the dying minutes can produce results, as it’s something a possession-oriented team is going to have trouble nullifying.

Whether or not Frank Yallop is smart enough to do that is up in the air. Chicago is winless thus far, so perhaps all you guys really changed in the coaching staff was the last name of your skipper. That, and swaying our defensive assistant to come back to Chi-Town.

Good luck.

OTF friend Wes Brown is a Real Salt Lake columnist for Soccer Newsday and a contributor to RSL Soapbox. Once upon a time, Wes was OTF Radio’s official live tweeter. Follow him @wesbadia

OTF’s Jon Denham grew up about seven miles north of The Harlem End. He now lives in Dubuque, Iowa, and may be its only resident with the MLS Direct Kick package. Jon’s the goalkeepers’ coach at Loras College, your go-to guy for t-shirts and promotional products at Envision Sports Designs, and writes some other stuff at Inclusive Beechwood Aging. Follow Jon @Denham_Jon

Chicago Fire vs. Real Salt Lake
Saturday, May 3, 7:30 pm cst at Toyota Park
Television: My50 Chicago, TWCSC Wisconsin
La radio en Español: La Ley 107.9 FM en Chicago

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