Through the years

A look at Fire/RSL Matchups

Ever wondered about two clubs having intertwined histories
in Major League Soccer’s 15 seasons? Oddly enough you need look no further than
the connections between the Chicago Fire and defending MLS Cup champion Real
Salt Lake.

The clubs came in under Major League Soccer’s first two
expansion waves – the Fire accompanied the now defunct Miami Fusion in 1998,
while Real Salt Lake entered the league with Chivas USA in 2005. Recognizing
the success of the Fire’s inaugural season, Real brought in the club’s
assistant General Manager, Steve Pastorino to launch their efforts in the fall
of 2004.

With Pastorino, came a slew of Fire players: RSL selected
Jamaican midfielder Andy Williams and former U.S. youth international
goalkeeper D.J. Countess in the expansion draft before trading for Botswanan
international striker Dipsy Selolwane and hard-nosed midfielder Evan Whitfield
all before 2005. Former U.S. U17 head coach brought in all four players in to
compliment U.S. international stars Clint Mathis, Eddie Pope and current RSL
coach Jason Kreis.

Despite the Fire influence on the club, Real, like their
expansion brethren Chivas USA, found things difficult during their first
season, going 5-22-5 and finishing with 20 points – 25 points outside of the league’s
final playoff spot. Head-to-head with the Fire, things didn’t go well either as
the Men in Red won both matches, coming away with an overall 6-1 aggregate
score over 180 minutes – beginning the veteran club’s dominance over their
younger brother. 

The days of having an extreme whipping boy in MLS were fun
for nearly every other club. In 1999, even if you were bad, at least you
weren’t as bad as the MetroStars. The 2005 season gave all 10 of the veteran
MLS clubs the opportunity to say, “Even though we’re bad, we’re definitely not
as bad as RSL
and Chivas.

The 2006 season was a different story for RSL, finishing
just outside the Western Conference playoff bubble and scoring their first
victory over the Fire as they rode a Jeff Cunningham brace and Dasan Robinson
own goal for a 3-1 win on June 3 – it would be the last time RSL tasted victory
against the Fire for over three years. In the return leg, Chad Barrett stole
the show, scoring two goals for the hosts in the last ten minutes in a 2-1
come-from-behind win on June 28 at the sides’ first-ever meeting at Toyota
Park.

While 2007 was nearly as bad as the club’s inaugural season,
the retirement of Jason Kreis the player and appointment of Jason Kreis the
head coach to lead the side earlier that May marked a decided change in the
club’s direction.

Given a full season to manage his team, Kreis guided RSL to it’s
first-ever playoff appearance in 2008, where they fell in the Western
Conference Finals to Red Bull New York.

Fire-wise,  while
it took RSL three years to taste any type of victory over their quasi-ancestral
club, the rivalry certainly narrowed as the Fire eeked out a 2-0-4 record
against RSL from 2007-2009, with only one victory, the 2-0 win on August 18,
2007, standing as a multi-goal effort. Overall, going into last season’s
Eastern Conference final at Toyota Park, the Fire had amassed a 6-1-4 record
over Salt Lake.

We all know how that went.

Real advanced to MLS Cup on penalty kicks and won the final
the same way over the LA Galaxy.

Even with the shootout win last fall, the Fire still
technically stayed undefeated at home against RSL, as the 120-minute match went
down as a draw. That all changed earlier this season as the Fire outplayed the
Utah-based side but surrendered a first half penalty to Robbie Findley and
officially recorded their first loss to RSL in the Windy City, falling 1-0.

Saturday’s game stands to symbolize a certain turning of the
tides as the defending MLS Cup champs stand tied for the league’s second best
record and nearly have their playoff ticket punched. On the flip side, the Fire
are now officially fighting for their playoff lives after a poor string of
results over the past month have dropped the club to fifth in the East, seven
points out of the last playoff spot with eight games to play.

The Fire will be bolstered by the absence of Real attacking
midfielder Javier Morales, who was suspended for “unsportsmanlike behavior”
committed against Seattle Sounders midfielder Osvaldo Alonso in the club’s
encounter last week. Without Morales’ ability to create, the Fire certainly
have a chance to pick up the points in Salt Lake, but will need to overcome the
altitude and an anemic attack that has plagued the team in September – the club
has scored just one goal in 270 minutes this month.

It’s becoming an old mantra, but tomorrow’s game is as close
to a must-win situation as it can get. Mathematics will come into play at some
point, but results need to change if the club expects to gain entry to a
league-unprecedented 12
th playoff appearance in 13 seasons.