The Fire came into last Sunday's game against Sporting Kansas City riding a three-game winning streak and buoyed by general acclaim about their turnaround. Unfortunately, a one-dimensional game plan and some thoughtless officiating brought that streak to a grinding halt, as KC won the resulting 1-0 grinder with Paulo Nagamura's header.
Put simply, Chicago's game plan was 1.) Find David Accam quickly after a turnover and let him out-run the Sporting defense; 2.) Find Accam quickly after a restart and let him out-run, etc.; and 3.) See 1. and 2. Sporting answered with the simple ‘tactic' of grabbing the Ghanaian by the jersey, holding for two steps, then releasing, bottling our lightning-bolt winger and daring the match official to call it. He didn't, and the Men in Red didn't adjust to it; instead of slowing down and keeping the ball (as they had done prior to Accam's return from injury), the Fire hammered again and again at that square peg, just sure that the next whack would drive it into its round hole.
So, what now? If the Fire intended to skip the three-man midfield of Sporting, how much more tempting will it be to do so against the traditionally packed central zone of Real Salt Lake? Or will the Men in Red remember they can keep the ball on the deck, and thereby return to the fluid pass-and-move game that drove their winning streak?
Since Accam is suspended, expect to see Chicago start Joevin Jones on the left wing with Lovel Palmer returning to deputize at left back. Word is that Mikey Stephens has practiced all week - could he slot in as Mr. X next to Matt Polster? Chris Ritter, last week's starter in that position, is the most defensive and direct of the options there, which makes his selection against KC understandable, as defensive directness was the order of the day.
There's also Razvan Coçiś and Víctor Pérez to consider - a/k/a the Midseason-Waiver Cap-Space All-Stars. Are they really in the mix for the XI at this point, or are they very good practice fodder? Yallop has a chance to throw quite a few surprises at Salt Lake manager Jeff Cassar if he wishes to.
We've now seen 630 minutes of competitive football from this Fire team, and have yet to watch a striker score a goal. It's simple enough, at this point: The first guy from Quincy Amarikwa, Guly do Prado and Kennedy Igboananike who can show he can finish will start. Build-up play, functioning within the team, pressing, attitude, effort, wanting-to - QUI BENE? Strikers gotta score. Gentlemen, the time is now.
Salt Lake enters the game both weary and filled with doubt. Wednesday's lightning-delayed 0-0 thriller against Los Angeles extended their scoreless streak over 600 minutes - think it's frustrating that our strikers aren't scoring? The Royals have played 10 HOURS of football since anyone wearing their badge celebrated a goal. That's crazy. They haven't won a game since Easter Sunday.
They also are nowhere near full strength. Javier Morales, now 35, simply carried this team to their two wins, but he won't play today due to injury. Neither will Joao Plata, the Ecuadorian winger who sparked last season's comeback Salt Lake win in Chicago. Inspirational Homegrown Jordan Allen might also miss after being called up to the USA U-20 squad for the youth World Cup.
None of which means this will be a walkover. Salt Lake is a team in transition, surely, as the old-guard axis of Saborio-Morales-Beckerman-Olave-Rimando gets slower and longer in the tooth, but they're also the organization which has built one of the best talent-production pipelines in the USA. The challenge around the Wasatch Front is to manage the ascendance of the latter without destroying the chemistry of the former.
To that end, expect the Royals to maintain a narrow diamond midfield and use like-for-like swaps in today's game - long-term project Luis Gil will move from shuttler to schemer, taking Morales' spot at the tip of the diamond, with the workmanlike John Stertzer moving into Gil's old spot. Luke Mulholland is creative and responsible in the other shuttling midfield role.
We've said this repeatedly this year, but it keeps applying: Real Salt Lake's central defense is generally solid, but can be had for pace. Jaime Olave is still a battering ram, but has lost a crucial step and no longer bosses the back line so imperiously. Chris Schuler's return from injury helps them, but how will he respond to his second game in four days?
The stop-start nature and late finish of Salt Lake's game on Wednesday could dictate more squad rotation from Cassar than we're used to. If that's the case, look for names like Devon Sandoval or Sebastian Jaime in the lineup.
Shipp & Maloney v Beckerman: If Chicago elects to keep the ball rather than playing on the counter, the ability of Harry Shipp and Shaun Maloney to ask varied questions of a defense will be crucial, as the Royals defense is vulnerable when Beckerman gets pulled side to side.
Chicago strikers v themselves: For the luvva Zoroaster, gentlemen. Shots on goal, please.
Polster & Mr. X v the RSL diamond: Matt Polster's coming off his worst game as a pro; were the tactics to blame, or is his form deflating? Today's matchup will ask a great deal of the Rookie of the Year candidate, as he and his midfield partner will likely be outnumbered in the middle, again.
What I'll be watching for
Can the Fire adapt during the game? Last weekend, it was obvious within about five minutes that Sporting were set up to deny the quick counter to Accam. Somehow, the Fire never got the memo, continuing to ping hopeful balls into space deep into the second half. Especially frustrating, as KC's midfield seemed ready to concede the kind of possession which the Men in Red have routinely turned into chances this season.
How does Polster look? The rookie's lights-out play has been the true surprise of the early season for the Fire; is that his level? Please, please tell me it is ...
The bottom line
The betting line aggregate at BetBrain.com for this one is promising to Fire fans: 45% chance of a win for the Men in Red, with a 29% chance of a draw.