It might only be the beginning of August but the Chicago Fire already face a meaningless league game. After losing back to back matches against Toronto FC, the Men In Red find themselves way behind a possible playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. With a massive US Open Cup semifinal on Wednesday night, it seems likely that head coach Veljko Paunovic will opt to field a much weaker side against Real Salt Lake on Saturday night. If that proves to be the case, then it gives Pauno the perfect chance to start Stefan Cleveland and give the young goalie an opportunity to take over the #1 position.
Simply put, Cleveland cannot be any worse than Sanchez has been in recent weeks. Game after game has seen a mistake from the usual starter, costing the Men In Red a handful of vital points. Some fans continue to hope he will turn the corner eventually, but the evidence does not suggest it will happen. Sanchez is liable to make a mistake against RSL on Saturday and, very likely, against Philadelphia on Wednesday.
Sanchez is a known quantity. Cleveland still has the potential to surprise us all. Taken with the 26th pick in the 2017 SuperDraft, the goalkeeper has yet to make an appearance in MLS play. He did go on a short loan to Tulsa, conceding twice in two games and making ten saves in total. The last Fire fans have seen of him was when the Men In Red took on Tulsa in a preseason friendly shortly before the start of the 2018 season. Cleveland did make a bad mistake in that game, clearing the ball right to a Tulsa attacker, who scored with ease.
That was a long time ago, and surely Cleveland has improved since then. He wouldn’t have been a first round draft pick if the Fire didn’t see something in him. He’s shown himself to be a decent enough shot stopper. He knows when to come out and when to stay home. Cleveland’s biggest problem is with his distribution— that likely has been the main reason why Pauno hasn’t played him much, given the boss’ emphasis on building possession out the back. But beggars can’t be choosers at this point, and Paunovic could get some good performances out of Cleveland if he just allowed for more clearances.
There are some that think this RSL game could be a last chance to rebuild Sanchez’s confidence before the crucial semifinal against Philly. But there’s a much bigger chance the exact opposite would take place on Saturday night. It’s likely that Paunovic will leave the core of the first team in Chicago, meaning the Men In Red will be rolling out a reserve side, similar to the one that took on Dallas earlier in the season in which the Fire condeded three goals.
Fans should expect the same come Saturday night. Chicago already has problems defending even when the first-choice XI is on the pitch; it doesn’t take much imagination to guess how Saturday will go. Salt Lake aren’t in the best run of form at the moment but they likely have enough in the tank to get a good result against us— especially at home. Sanchez is likely going to find himself fishing the ball out of his own net a lot on Saturday, which will not do wonders for his confidence.
If the Fire are liable to concede a lot of goals and likely lose anyway, they might as well give Cleveland a chance to prove himself as a viable alternative. It’s a low risk high reward scenario.
The worst case scenario is he starts against RSL, concedes a lot of goals, and Chicago go on to lose. At which point he returns to the bench and the Fire are likely no worse off than they were before. The best case scenario is Cleveland puts in a stellar performance. At which point there’d be no reason not to let the bet ride against Philly in the Open Cup.
At the end of the day, both of these goalkeepers are fighting over who should be the backup once Patrick McClain returns from injury. Though he has a predilection for tinkering, Paunovic has proven to be stubbornly hesitant to make certain kinds of changes. The goalkeeper slot has been one of them. Yet he should accept the RSL game as an opportunity to reevaluate the keeper question. Stefan Cleveland deserves a chance to prove himself. And Pauno doesn’t have much to lose.