Well the World Cup action will come this weekend, but you can get your soccer fix on Thursday night as the defending MLS Cup Champions Real Salt Lake visit Toyota Park and the Chicago Fire. ESPN 2 will be doing the honors at 7:30pm MT, which is fairly late for a start time but means I don't have to run home from work early.
For RSL there has been nothing but good news lately, Nick Rimando was the Player of the Month for June, Alvaro Saborio was the Player of the Week last week, they are on franchise long undefeated and shutout streaks. They sit with 27 points after 14 weeks of the MLS season, second only to the LA Galaxy, they have a +16 goal differential, and yet I have a feeling that many of the players are looking for more. They know they left points on the pitch against DC United and San Jose in recent weeks, they know they are capable of more, and I like that they are still not satisfied with how they are playing and that they want more. A hungry RSL side is a very dangerous thing for the other teams in MLS, and while it isn't a Eastern Conference final, look for RSL to push for a big road win over the Fire, which would be their first ever regular season win at Toyota Park (0-3-2).
The Fire have been more like the "Embers" lately, at 4-4-5 they sit with 17 points which is good enough for 4th place in the East, but perhaps no number is more telling than their 1-1-4 record against teams from the Western Conference. The Fire have done well against RSL over the last 5 years and boast a 5-1-4 record in regular season matches. The Fire are dealing with a couple of big injury issues that have hurt them in recent weeks: OUT: FW Calen Carr (R quad strain); MF John Thorrington (L quad strain); DOUBTFUL: FW Patrick Nyarko (concussion symptoms); QUESTIONABLE: DF Dasan Robinson (R hamstring strain). For the Fire, this is their last league match of the month (yeah I know it is only the 8th), but they will spend the next couple weeks playing in SuperLiga. You know the tournament that pits the non-Champions League teams against some teams from Mexico and can usually only be seen on Telefutura or Univision.
After the jump, Key Matchups, Wildcards, and my match prediction:
RSL Offense vs. Fire Defense
No offense is more lethal than RSL's at this point of the MLS season, 27 goals in 14 matches, only 3 other teams have cracked the 20 goal scored mark, LA with 25, Houston with 21, and Columbus with 20. The Fire defense has been questionable, while they have only allowed 18 goals (6 teams have allowed more), in 4 of their last 7 matches they have allowed more than one goal. In fact they only have 3 clean sheets on the season and average allowing 1.38 goals per match, RSL's offense is averaging 1.93 goals scored per match.
The RSL offense has been their most lethal in minutes 31-45, 46-60, and 75-90, in each of those time periods they have scored 6 goals, Chicago has allowed 5 goals in the final 15 minutes of matches, and 4 in the final 15 minutes of the first half. Those facts play well into the RSL's gameplan and one would clearly think by looking at the numbers and the recent form of both sides that RSL's offense has a advantage.
Marco Pappa vs. Javier Morales
Creative playmakers are one of the most important things to a team and this matchup will feature two of the best in MLS, Javier Morales has 4 goals and 6 assists so far this season, while Marco Pappa has 6 goals and 4 assists and both should find themselves in Houston for the All Star Match.
I said early in the year that the Fire would struggle to replace Blanco, and that it would likely take Pappa to step up and become the offensive leader of this team. Marco impressed the Fire enough last year that they worked a deal to make his loan a permanent transfer, and now he is under contract until the end of the 2012 season, the 23 year old from Guatemala is a great mix of creativity and possession. Now Chicago will look to use him as the engine that will take them back to the playoffs in 2010.
From week 1 of the MLS season when he won MLS Player of the Week honors, Javier Morales has been making an impression. He has two game winning goals, and a game winning assist, despite missing a couple matches due to an injury. Perhaps more important is the fact that when Kyle Beckerman went down with an injury, it was Javier Morales who stepped up to take a more active leadership role on the pitch. So despite most teams marking him with two players, Javi has stepped up his level of play enough to still be one of the most dangerous players in the league. I have to give a slight edge to Javi who has just a bit more experience and that knowledge is enough for him to get the best in the matchup with Pappa.
If you watched the Fire face off against the Crew, you saw that one of the few Chicago players who looked dangerous on offense for the Fire was Mike Banner. While his shots left something to be desired, he was able to use his speed to get into dangerous positions. In 2009 he found the back of the net twice and added three assists, but in his just under 500 minutes in 2010 he has yet to do either, but in his 143 minutes against RSL he has two assists.. So while RSL will need to focus a lot of attention on Marco Pappa, we can't allow Banner to get behind our defense or he might just get some dangerous chances.
Robbie is back from South Africa, and while still a bit jet lagged he was able to go 45 minutes against New England, and in that amount of time he was able to get several quality runs at the Rev's defense and in the end he was able to convert in the 81st minute for RSL's 5th and final goal of the match. While not projected as a starter, don't be surprised if he is in starting 11, but it really doesn't matter if he starts or comes off the bench the reality is that Robbie is one dangerous player. With so many RSL opponents now worried about Saborio, it should open up even more chances for Robbie to make runs and get defenses out of shape, and that should create scoring chances for himself and all the other RSL players.
Yes I still find it necessary to list the head official as a wildcard in matches. Mr. Vaughn is one of the MLS's more experienced officials with 131 matches under his belt, he worries me as he calls an average of 28.5 fouls per match, and issues an average of 3.9 yellow cards per match. The number of PK's he has issued is 43, or one every 3.05 matches, he pairs that with 44 red cards issued or one every 2.98 matches.
There is only once current Chicago Fire player who has ever scored a goal against Real Salt Lake, Patrick Nyarko, and he is unlikely to see action as he is listed as doubtful on their injury report. RSL has double that number as both Andy Williams and Jamison Olave have scored against the Fire. This RSL isn't the same team that has been unable to get a regular season win at Toyota Park, this is the team that was to beat the Fire in the playoffs last year and outplayed them for most of the match. I wouldn't be surprised at all if the Fire took a more defensive minded approach to the match on Thursday as they know they can't match RSL's firepower.
This RSL team is hungry, and that makes them very dangerous. They know that they can't win MLS Cup in July, but they know they want to keep pace and catch the Galaxy and to do that will require results on the road, more importantly it will require wins on the road and that is exactly what I expect them to do. 2-1 RSL.
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