BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- The Chicago Fire take on defending MLS champion Real Salt Lake for the first time since last year's Eastern Conference Finals when they host RSL on Thursday night at Toyota Park (8:30 p.m. kickoff, ESPN2).
The good news for Chicago is that penalty kicks will not decide a winner or loser in this one. The Fire fell to RSL in PKs in the East finale last season -- not to mention a recent U.S. Open Cup loss and last year's SuperLiga title match.
Plain and simple this week, the Fire need some points. They are 4-4-5 (17 points) and sit 10 points behind East-leading Columbus Crew. And if the season ended today, only the top two teams in the conference would see the postseason. Chicago sits in fourth place.
"We are wasting effort, wasting time, wasting points," Fire head coach Carlos de los Cobos said. "One or two points [lost], and sometimes you are out of the qualifying zone."
Chicago is coming off a 2-1 loss to the Crew, and considering how strong the Western Conference is at the moment, every victory is necessary to help the Fire inch up the East standings while also holding a West opponent at bay.
"We've talked a lot with the players about how important [the Columbus] match was, specifically for us," De los Cobos said. "We play with this objective to win, and we have opportunities. We have chances to score. But we've had some mistakes. That is life. Life is very cruel sometimes."
There is some concern about who Chicago will have available on Thursday. Midfielder/forward Patrick Nyarko has been a consistent creator this season, but he is doubtful for the match with concussion symptoms. Forward Brian McBride also missed a little training this week with a leg injury, but he was held out for precautionary reasons and is expected to be the team's main option up front on Thursday.
Historically, RSL (8-3-3) is incredibly dominant at home and vulnerable on the road. For the most part, that has held true this season.
RSL has a 6-0-2 record at home and has outscored its opponents by a whopping 20-5 margin. On the road, the squad is 2-3-1 with a slight 7-6 scoring edge.
The Fire will once again have a long break from MLS action following this match. Chicago plays a host of SuperLiga matches this month and will not have another league game until Aug. 1 when the Fire travel to the west coast to face the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Chicago needs to capitalize on its home-field advantage Thursday.