Sunday, the Red Bulls have their first real test of the season as FC Best Buy (aka the Chicago Fire) visit the Swamp with bad blood on their minds.
Despite what you might read in today's press, Chicago (5-2-1) ain't too pleased with the Red Bulls, since NY's current coach Juan Carlos Osorio bolted from Bridgeview after last season, breaking his Fire contract. Of course, the MetroStars absconded with original Fire coach Bob Bradley after the 2002 season, so there's was a precedent for Chicago coaches ending up in New York.
Chicago has retaliated in two ways; one by putting a discovery claim and then signing Red Bull off-season target Lider Marmol, then preventing unhappy Chicago defender Wilman Conde from joining coach Osorio in New York.
On the field, however, under longtime assistant Denis Hamlett, the Fire is on a roll, with five wins in eight starts. Despite a home loss to Houston last week, Chicago's second-ranked offense (14 goals) and top-ranked defense (5 goals conceded) will give New York everything it can handle.
Last week's Red Bulls home draw with Kansas City was disappointing on two levels; first that KC scored on one of their few decent chances all night, and second that it took New York 16 (!) quality opportunities to get the ball in the net. For New York to deliver a positive result on Sunday, it must convert any and all opportunities the stingy Fire defense allows.
Position and Recent Form:
New York, 12 pts from 7 matches, 5th East, TWTWT
Chicago, 16 pts from 8 matches, 2nd East, LWWWL
Here's a line-by-line look at Sunday's match:
The Chicago forwards vs. the Red Bulls' defense:
Chad Barrett and Andy Herron vs. Kevin Goldthwaite, Jeff Parke, and Hunter Freeman (and Jon Conway). Though the bulk of the Fire's scoring comes through the midfield, Barrett (with his size) and sub Herron will provide a challenge. The Red Bulls' defense faltered last week only when Jeff Parke was picked from covering KC's Jimmy Conrad on a corner kick. Otherwise, the back line has been the story of the season for New York, especially since the offense has produced only nine goals in seven games. Advantage: New York
New York's attackers vs. the Fire defense:
Jozy Altidore and Juan Pablo Angel vs. Diego Gutierrez, Gonzalo Segares, Bakary Soumare, and Brandon Prideaux (and Jon Busch). When your defense pitches four clean sheets in eight outings, something special is happening. Last week's 2-1 loss in Houston was the first time the Fire had conceded more than one goal in a match this year. The fearsome foursome in front on Busch has played together in seven of eight 2008 matches. Angel and Altidore's production have been way down this season, though it seems that Angel's sore back is finally healing. If any tandem can break through the Fire defense, its the Red Bulls'. Advantage: Chicago
Dane Richards, Luke Sassano, Mike Magee, Claudio Reyna and Danleigh Borman, vs. Justin Mapp, Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Logan Pause, and Chris Rolfe. Blanco is leading the Fire in scoring (3g, 2a), and his ability to score from long range will keep the NY backline honest. As he goes, so goes the Fire. Mapp and Rolfe are huge scoring threats as well. Chicago will miss John Thorrington (3g), doubtful with back spasms. Reyna, if he plays, will be responsible for slowing down Blanco and will need to be at the top of his game. The Red Bulls will miss suspended Dave van den Burgh, especially against the 6' 1" Mapp. Can the Rookie Borman extend his scoring to three matches? Advantage: Push
Denis Hamlett's promotion to Head Coach in Chicago after a decade on the staff was one of the great stories of the MLS offseaon. Hamlett knows his success depends on a happy Blanco, and his impressive record in the young season is a testament to his ability to get the most of his players. New York's Osorio needs to get his side to finish more chances. Advantage: Push
Blanco's visit will result in a big walk-up crowd wearing Club America jerseys. With many among the Red Bulls' fan base out of town for the holiday weekend, Chicago may be the "home" team on Sunday. It'll be a sunny, warm day on the Giants Stadium turf. Advantage: Chicago
Prediction: With the two stingiest MLS defenses going head-to-head, goals will be few and far between. This is the first real gut-check of the season for New York, and a loss, even this early in the season, could drop the Red Bulls into a flight for a playoff berth. I think the Fire is the better side, and Blanco will feed Barrett for the lone tally in a 1-0 Chicago win.
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