The New York Red Bulls limped home to the East Coast on Sunday, still sore from the 3-0 shellacking administered by Real Salt Lake. The performance at Rio Tinto was, Hans Backe admitted, the club's worst in his one and a half year tenure. The lack of movement, energy and desire on display were simply inexcusable for a team hoping to make a push for a playoff spot. Backe will be hoping that a week of training, some tactical tinkering and good old-fashioned home cooking will be enough to allow the Red Bulls to take three points on Saturday evening against a Chicago Fire team that has struggled for results all season long.
The Red Bulls and Fire are MLS' draw specialists, with a staggering 25 stalemates between them (24 if you don't count the thoroughly forgettable reverse fixture in Bridgeview twice). With a few exceptions, games between the two clubs have tended to be tight, defensive affairs in recent seasons. Joel Lindpere's memorable goal made the difference in Red Bull Arena's tense opening league game in 2010, while the return match in Chicago saw Sean Johnson stand on his head to preserve a 0-0 draw.
This year, the Red Bulls have traveled to Chicago twice already (well... some of them have). Lindpere was again instrumental in the first match, getting a visibly exhuasted New York a 1-1 result at Toyota Park in late June, at the tail end of the Road Trip From Hell. And we all know what happened just a few weeks later, when the Red Bulls sent a skeleton squad and second-string coaching staff to the Midwest, only to get summarily thumped 4-0.As desperate as New York is for three points against one of the league's weaker teams, Backe faces some selection headaches coming into this evening's match. Goalkeeper Frank Rost left the game in Salt Lake with a quadriceps tear that could seem him miss a month or more. Bouna Coundoul, just back from national team duty with Senegal and potentially fatigued, should be back between the pipes in Rost's place. Jan Gunnar Solli is also questionable with a quad issue, but with Chris Albright fit again, his absence might be less acutely felt than it would have been a few months ago.
In the center of midfield the combination of Mehdi Ballouchy and Dax McCarty has been simply disastrous. Teemu Tainio looks likely to return to his familiar destroyer role, solidifying things somewhat, but who will Backe pair with him? Will new addition Stéphane Auvray, just acquired today from Sporting Kansas City for a 2012 second round draft pick, get a start? That seems unlikely and risky, considering his total absence from the Sporting squad in recent weeks. McCarty has looked somewhat more at home when played alongside Tainio, so expect that tandem again. If the increasingly unpopular Ballouchy's name is on the team sheet there could a a riot. Dane Richards returns on the right wing, having served his red card suspension.
The Fire are winless in their last eight games (0-3-5) and arrive in New York on the heels of a 4-2 drubbing at the hands of MLS bottom feeders Vancouver Whitecaps. The aging Pavel Pardo was recently added as Chicago's Mexican Community Pander of the Year, but there has been little in the way of consistency for the Fire in 2011. Manager Carlos de los Cobos was dumped early in the season and replaced by interim coach Frank Klopas, to little discernible effect. This is a club arguably even more adrift than the Red Bulls, if that's possible.
The match will be shown live on MSG at 7:30PM. With a few key staff members missing this week and yours truly at the stadium, we will not have a live match thread for this one at Once a Metro. We will, however, have a full wrap-up for you following the game. The crowd is expected to be at or close to capacity - a remarkable feat by the Red Bull sales department when you consider the league positions of the two teams involved.