The future of the Chicago Fire’s 2016 season all hinges on a win Tuesday at New England in the semi-finals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
Unfortunately, the MLS doesn’t allow teams to abandon the regular season; so the Fire will have to go with the flow tonight as they head west to face Real Salt Lake. The match begins at 9 p.m. central time and airs on CSN Chicago.
Many of the names are the same, but the aging core that led Salt Lake to so much success in the late 2000s-early 2010s have begun to lose life’s eternal battle with Father Time. The midfield of luciously-dreadlocked Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales and Luke Mulholland continue to be the engine that drives the team. Similiar to his playstyle with the US Men’s National Team, Beckerman generally hangs in the back of the midfield and wanders around to clean up loose balls and to spring his two speedy midfielders for a forward assault. The attack continues with Juan Martinez, Joao Plato and Yura Movsisyan; whose combination of speed and size has helped the squad score 32 goals in 33 matches.
However, the offense has gone cold as the weather heats up, scoring just five goals in their past seven league matches, while being shut out three times over the month-plus stretch.
While the offense has only recently hit a snag, Salt Lake’s defense has never found a way to get into second gear. Despite being led by US Men’s National Team mainstay Nick Rimando, the defense’s 33 goals allowed is higher than the peaks of the neighboring Wasatch Range. With their goal differential of -1, Salt Lake are the only team in MLS with a winning record with a negative goal differential. Only three times in 23 league matches this season has Salt Lake been able to keep their opponent of the score sheet.
Much of the blame cannot be put on Rimando, whose goals’ against average is middle of the league, but more rests on a back four who are simply warm bodies to toss in front of goal in the hopes the ball deflects off on en route to the net. There’s a real possibility the Fire could use their speed to come against this aging part of the RSL and put some pressure on Rimando to pull off some magic.
Of course, that’s the assumption that the Fire will play their starters on Saturday night. With the MLS season, barring divine intervention, essentially over; the Fire’s focus has rightfully shifted to the Open Cup. And with the semi-finals just 72 hours after tonight’s match, it would be stunning to see Veljko Paunović risk any sort of injuries or harm by starting the likes of David Accam or Michael De Leeuw. Unless the youngsters rise up, it’s likely the Fire’s road winless streak goes to 36 matches. With a win Tuesday, I doubt many fans will care about the tradeoff. I’m going 3-1 Real Salt Lake.
What are your thoughts and predictions? Leave a comment below?