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 12th playoff appearance in 13 seasons.