I hope Dietrich Mateschitz is watching this afternoon, and maybe even having one of his menacing henchmen take notes. Because his New York Red Bulls - the team he continues to saddle with a holistic development-focused strategy that bears only record-setting league titles - are facing one of Major League Soccer’s true model clubs.
According to the last full audit of MLS salaries at the end of 2019, the Chicago Fire were listed as the league’s third most expensive squad. The Fire ranked just between second-place LA Galaxy and fourth-place Los Angeles FC in the true measurement of commitment to winning in North American soccer, a measurement certainly not rendered reductive by the league’s rigid salary floor and the concentration of the highest spending into 2-3 members of a 30-man squad.
No, the Fire have not lodged themselves in the trap of purchasing young talents hungry to reach higher levels of the game. They’ve put in the effort to make the difficult signings that establish prestige for a team. Their local-based ownership’s sea-changing signings of international talents like Bastian Schweinsteiger and Nicolas Gaitan should be a signal to Red Bulls fans that they are surely being conned by their ownership’s faith in the hocus pocus of comprehensive global recruitment structures. The Fire have even embarrassed the Red Bulls by picking up the top-level talent New York allows to leave on a regular basis, such as three-year Chicago captain Dax McCarty.
You can trot out the excuses as long as you want on the hapless New York fanbase, but the jig is increasingly up. Red Bull management surely dread afternoon on the schedule like today when fans are able to get a glimpse of what a real club looks like - a club that actually spends like New York never will.
As a brief but probably unrelated footnote - the Fire finished 22nd in the league in 2020 and have not made the playoffs since 2017. In 2019 the club were the least-attended team in the league with a weekly average of 12,000 fans.
Opponent: Chicago Fire FC (0-1-1, manager Raphaël Wicky)
Kickoff: 1:00pm - Red Bull Arena, Harrison NJ
Television: MSG Network
Projected Red Bulls XI: Coronel, Gutman, Long, Nealis, Duncan, Davis, Yearwood, Casseres, Amaya, Royer, Fabio
-Youba Diarra’s status remains doubtful following a 1-2 week injury layoff prediction from Gerhard Struber last week. Struber also mentioned that Andrés Reyes had suffered a “small injury” in training this week and was questionable for Saturday - not that it should affect the game plan too much given Struber says Reyes was not yet worthy of minutes even prior to the injury.
-Struber stated in Thursday’s press conference that Tom Edwards had completed a week of training with the team after completing immigration and quarantine procedures and that the English right back had arrived in impressive physical condition. While it’s unlikely that Edwards would be sent out for the 90 minutes typically expected of any starting defender, Struber has not been short of selection surprises so far.
-Indeed Struber has made it difficult to guess where he will go formation-wise two weeks into his first league season, perhaps by plan. With his team still beneath full fitness and cohesion after a choppy preseason, Struber cited the ability to play wide and shorter pressing distances as motives behind his 3-5-2 against the Galaxy last week. Though Struber and his players agreed with most observers that the Red Bulls looked substantially better in the second half after a switch back to the 4-4-2 diamond, it wouldn’t be surprising if Struber pulled out the 3-center back look again for a Chicago side that uses multiple tall forwards in Robert Beric and Chinonso Offor.
-Chicago has been a minor bogeyman for the Red Bulls in recent seasons, with a win at Harrison marking one of the few blips on New York’s 2018 Supporters Shield campaign and a dire Red Bulls performance in Bridgeview the next spring marking one of the early low points of the Chris Armas tenure. The teams drew 2-2 in one meeting at Soldier Field in last year’s truncated season.
Struberism Of The Week
strengthness (stɹɛŋkθ - nəs) - used April 23 in describing team’s principles in final third.
Greatest Bald Player In Chicago Fire History: CHRIS ARMAS
Old favorite of the blog Chris Armas is soccer royalty in Chicago after a decade with the Fire that began with the 1998 double-winning campaign. Armas will be visiting the Red Bulls next week as Toronto FC manager in a game that will definitely produce extremely measured and polite sentiments from all sides no matter what happens. Here’s Armas in 2006, showing just why he was such a hit in elements of the New York fanbase with a lengthy complaint about a lack of local press coverage of MLS.
Match Prediction: 3-1 Red Bulls
As discussed by our own Ross Haley yesterday and smarmily implied by the above column, Chicago is not a very good team. In terms of talent, recent league finishes, and tactical approach, the game is one that a well-managed (we’re still trying to assume) Red Bulls team should have little problem winning at home.
The Red Bulls have shown danger and the ability to score even in their sloppy early stage, including in a difficult road fixture last week. With Struber seemingly more cognizant of the Fire’s (still somewhat meager) threats than he might have been about the deployment of Chicharito in Carson last week and his players surely hungry to collect their pride, expect the Red Bulls to finally put together a full 90 minutes of control in a May Day fixture against Chicago.