Chicago’s first-ever visit to TQL stadium was a game that Fire fans won’t soon forget.
Luka Stojanović has officially etched himself into Fire folklore (if he hadn’t done so already), and now CFFC head into their final home game of 2021 on the heels of a draw against the best team in the league and a marquee moment from Wednesday’s win in Cincinnati.
Here’s what to look for as the Fire have one last dance at Soldier Field in 2021 against Real Salt Lake.
UPS, DOWNS, AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN
It has been a wild year for the Real Salt Lake organization. They currently do not have an owner. Their former head coach left at the end of August. They looked to be done. However, Pablo Mastroeni has figured out a way to get the most out of this group, and they are currently in eighth place in the Western Conference on 42 points with a game in hand. They could potentially jump as high as fifth place with a win and some help on Saturday, but could also fall to ninth with a loss and an LAFC win. Needless to say, this is a massive fixture for RSL.
Mastroeni’s crew have more or less been trading wins and losses since former head coach Freddy Juarez left RSL to join the Sounders' coaching staff. I mean this quite literally. They have gone win then loss for the better part of two months. Since Sept. 4, their results look like this: WLWWLWLW. RSL has not drawn a game since July 31st (0-0 @ Houston) and seem to want everything or nothing. I absolutely love this mentality, and it will make for one heck of a 90 minutes on the lakefront come Saturday night. Buckle up.
This team is the epitome of an emotional roller-coaster. They go from 1-0 wins over first-place Seattle to 6-1 defeats at Portland to 90+5’ game-winners against the LA Galaxy.
They go from 2-1 losses to Austin FC who are at the bottom of the table, to 3-1 wins against a Rapids side who are currently in third.
I think it is safe to say you just simply don’t know which RSL you’re going to get, so it’s best to stay on your toes and be prepared for literally anything.
WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE
There have been some fixtures in this RSL side for a few years now. Salt Lake City may not be the biggest market in MLS, so these names sometimes fly under the radar, but make no mistake - they are quality.
Damir Kreilach has been consistently one of the best attacking players in the conference since he came to Rio Tinto in 2018. He has 14 goals and eight assists this year, and just set a club record with his fifth-straight game on the scoresheet.
Albert Rusnak is a clever No. 10 who is extremely technical and a handful to deal with in between the lines. Rubio Rubin adds a lot of quality in the attacking third, while Anderson Julio is both a menace off the bench and a great change of pace from Kreilach and Rubin. Julio has eight goals this year, and one of them was an absolute banger in stoppage time against the Galaxy that even rivals Luka’s wonder-strike from Wednesday.
This group has been employing a 3-5-2 with Erik Holt, Justen Glad and Aaron Herrera anchoring the backline while Maikel Chang and Andrew Brody provide the width from the wingback positions. Donny Toia and Marcelo Silva have started a little more than half the games this year in the defense but got the night off in Salt Lake’s 3-1 win over the Rapids last weekend. Herrera really likes to get forward from the right side and provide quality delivery. He has registered 10 assists so far this season, and typically plays as a wingback in this system. Holt and Glad are really good in the air, while Herrera is quality on the ball. Given their performance against Austin compared to the one we saw against the Rapids, it will be interesting to see if Mastroeni sticks with what worked most recently.
Everton Luiz and Pablo Ruiz sit behind Rusnak. Luiz plays a similar role to Federico Navarro, while Ruiz sets the tempo. Kreilach and Rubin are the targets up top and trigger the press.
The press is what gives them this exciting, helter-skelter identity. They can push up extremely high and leave their back three exposed at times. This is particularly true when Brody, Chang or whoever is playing in the wingback position start high and stay high. It leaves a lot of ground to cover for the backline and a ton of space in behind the wingbacks.
Despite an up-and-down season from RSL, they are a very talented group. The Fire are coming off their most dramatic win in the past two years, and arguably their best two road performances over the course of the past two seasons.
Real Salt Lake have everything to play for as far as the playoffs are concerned, and the Fire have clearly been playing better as of late. All of the pressure and impetus is on the visitors, so Chicago should enjoy their final home game and go after this group.
It’s Fan Appreciation Night at Soldier Field, and it’s the last game at home in what has been a trying 2021 campaign. This Fire group just showed you on Wednesday night that they are not done competing, and I can’t wait to see what follows for the encore.
I suggest you get to Soldier Field a bit early, as we are expecting our best crowd of the season and the first 10,000 fans through the doors get a new crest hat and flag.
Tony Meola and I will be on WGN and CFFC Live at 7 p.m. CT. Let’s get Soldier Field rocking and send the boys off the proper way as they try to spoil RSL’s playoff hopes.