Real Salt Lake hit the road for their first away match against the Chicago Fire. With change a plenty in the Windy City, RSL should not expect to stroll in and easily take all three points. RSL will have to be on point if they hope to achieve the same 3-1 victory over the Fire in 2017.
Chemistry can be Dangerous
As mentioned before, Chicago went out and got a large list of new talent, chief among these are the new midfield tandem of Juninho and Dax McCarty. This pair will make their first competitive appearance after Juninho was prevented from playing in Chicago’s season opener against the Columbus Crew SC after an on-field incident with his previous MLS club, the LA Galaxy, in 2015.
Last year the Fire played non-aggressive soccer, defending rather than pressing. The addition of Juninho and McCarty will definitely chance the squad’s dynamics, having both come from high-pressing playing systems. So instead of waiting for the ball to come to them and then counter-attacking, expect the Chicago Fire, through their central midfield duo, to press and win the ball in dangerous areas.
What to watch
Pay particular attention to RSL attacks down the touchlines. While the club has been a juggernaut down the center of the pitch this preseason, they still struggled with defending against attacks down the wing. Neither David Accam or Arturo Alvarez are known for having high defensive work-rates, so if the Claret-and-Cobalt can overload the wings then they have a better chance of keeping the Fire on their heels.
As such, RSL should have a greater chance of scoring their first goal of the 2017 season if they get their fullbacks into the attack.
Different conferences, different squad composition: still, the Claret-and-Cobalt and the Fire are more similar than they are different when it comes to mentality.
Like RSL, Chicago have a pertinacity to come back from losing positions. Often Chicago will concede early and through the individual skills of their attackers be able to claw back to level terms. In addition, both these teams are more likely to sit back and protect a lead instead of searching for a brace - a trait that has come back to haunt both teams in recent memory.
While approaching a match with a similar mindset as your opponent is not inherently a negative thing, it could lead to a very stale match.
Both these clubs will be playing a 4-2-3-1 formation, looking to strike early, and utilizing counter-attacks for most of their offensive production. While this may prove to be very open and entertaining during the first 15 minutes, expect the match to become more closed and rigid as time progresses and scores (hopefully) increase.
What to watch
As the Fire have a habit of playing in their own half when in possession of the ball, RSL should use their new high-pressure style of play implemented in the preseason. Should the Claret-and-Cobalt win the ball in the attacking half, the speed of Joao Plata and the technical savvy of Yura Movsisyan can both be exploited against a high defensive line.
With their opponent’s defaulting to playing the offside trap, space is opened up between the back-line and the keeper which the Salt Lake attacking corps needs to operate. Playing aggressive and utilizing through balls should help RSL’s attackers produce in Chicago.
Keys to the Match
1. Create Opportunities from open play – Chicago proved to be a holy terror when defending set pieces throughout the preseason. Even with great set piece deliverers in Plata and Albert Rusnak, converting these opportunities will prove difficult - if not impossible - in the Windy City. Instead, RSL needs to quickly counter and catch the Fire in an offensive stance.
2. Exploiting space between the back-line and the opponent’s goal – As stated before, Chicago’s defensive style leaves a lot of open space between the defenders and their keeper. Having Plata and Rusnak help Movsisyan who already has a tendency to float into their areas could lead to many three-on-two breakaways. This space is open so lets hope that Beckerman can float a few more balls to Plata like he did against Toronto.
3. Defensive cover – Just as RSL looks to exploit open space in their attacking third, so to does Chicago. The Fire’s attacking corps has the tendency to be caught offside as the dart up the wings so defensive cover is needed. Both Plata and Jordan Allen will need to continue their defensive support in order to stop secondary runs from becoming dangerous.
Expected Chicago Fire Lineup (4-2-3-1):
DEF: Harrington, Kappelhof, Meira, Vincent
MID: Juninho, McCarty
MID: Alvarez, de Leeuw, Accam
Watch RSL take on the Chicago Fire on Saturday March 11th at 12:00 pm MST on KMYU or listen to Bill Riley on ESPN 700.