After yet another draw against the Revs last time out, the Fire head into May without a win. The first of four grueling matches this month is against Real Salt Lake at Toyota Park on Saturday evening (7:30pm CT on My50/TWCSC). Both teams enter this game with sour tastes in their mouths after the way their last matches ended and I expect it to be a frantic first 20 minutes or so. Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective.
Replacing Quincy – how will coach Yallop adjust to the loss of the team’s top scorer?
Perhaps the most important outcome of the match against New England last time out was the red card and one game suspension for Qunicy Amarikwa, the team’s top goal scorer and most consistent attacking threat this season. Replacing Amarikwa is no easy task, especially because his partnership with Mike Magee was just starting to bloom, but the Fire coaching staff does have plenty of options.
The most obvious and like for like switch would be for Juan Luis Anangono and act as the target striker with Magee playing behind him. Anangono has come off the bench on a consistent basis this season and will be looking to avenge his injury time penalty miss against New England.
A more likely scenario however would be for either Victor Pineda or Benji Joya to start in place of Amarikwa. Both players are comfortable playing in the forward roles and Joya especially would relish a chance to start in his more natural position instead of a wide one where he began the season.
Playing with either Joya or Pineda up front would also allow the Fire to continue to play a target-less striker formation, something that has worked to date this season. That being said, Frank Yallop could also decide to start Joya or Pineda in one of the wide positions in an attempt to combat RSL’s midfield diamond, as I will explain below.
Don’t be too distracted by the obvious – Plata and Saborio are the clear danger men but Luke Mulholland makes RSL tick
Many will argue RSL’s unbeaten start to the season is down to players like Joao Plata, Alvaro Saborio or Javier Morales making the difference but the player who has had possibility the biggest impact this season is Englishman Luke Mulholland.
Mulholland plays on the outside of RSL’s compact midfield diamond, with Ned Grabavoy operating on the other side. In attack, Mulholland can provide balls into the area from a wide position but he also excels at making late runs into the box where he often finds space due to defenders concentrating on RSL’s more known attacking threats.
Defensively, Mulholland provides cover for his full back and does not get caught up the field often in transition. The Englishmen has chipped in with two goals and one assist in four starts this season and acts as the youthful spark in a midfield containing veterans such as Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales.
Mulholland is also very versatile, with he and Grabavoy able to operate comfortably on either side of the diamond. To combat this, I could see the Fire drafting Matt Watson or Logan Pause in to pack the midfield, especially against RSL’s narrow formation. Watson or Pause could play alongside anchor Jeff Larentowicz or a bit higher up, perhaps alongside Harry Shipp or Alex in a 4-1-4-1 formation.
In last week’s match against Vancouver, RSL overran the Whitecaps midfield for much of the first half. Putting an extra body in the middle on Saturday night would ensure the same thing doesn’t happen to the Men in Red.
Exposing RSL on the flanks – proving an attacking threat from both wings
Since the return of Patrick Nyarko to the starting eleven, the Ghanaian has been a one-man wrecking crew down the right hand side for the Fire. Nyarko has also combined well with right back Lovel Palmer in attack – something we saw work in the Fire’s favor against New England two weeks ago.
Due to RSL’s narrow formation, they can be exploited on the wings, where the full backs are sometimes left isolated. Nyarko and Palmer should thrive against this type of formation but for the Fire to take full advantage, the team needs to also have a consistent attacking threat from the left.
In recent matches, Harry Shipp has drifted inside from his wide left position to great effect but against RSL, whoever occupies the wide left position must try to take advantage of their narrow midfield by attacking from wide. With the center of the park sure to be busy, if the Fire focus their attack in the wide areas, it could result in the team picking up its first win of the season.
Prediction: It was a long time coming, but the Fire finally pick up three points – 2-1 Fire with goals from Mike Magee and Patrick Nyarko.
Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @Irish_Steve.
WATCH: Kevin and Jeff preview Saturday's game vs. RSL