BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- Taking on Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium is no easy task.
The defending MLS champs have created a remarkable home-field advantage in the higher altitude, and you need to go no further than RSL's stellar 9-0-3 record at Rio Tinto this year, and a seemingly endless home unbeaten streak that now stands at 22 matches.
With a win or a draw, RSL would establish the longest home unbeaten streak in MLS history.
On the other side of the coin, the Chicago Fire are in desperate need of a victory this Saturday when they face RSL on the road.
"They're a very good team," Fire forward Brian McBride said. "[RSL head coach] Jason [Kreis] has done an extremely good job with them and seems to have figured out what he needed to do for his team. He's done a great job, and he probably deserves a little more credit than he gets."
The Fire certainly are giving Kreis the credit after falling to the eventual champs last year in the Eastern Conference Finals at Toyota Park. RSL also posted a 1-0 victory over the Fire at Toyota Park on July 8, but Salt Lake's home invincibility outshines most of the team's other accomplishments.
"They have become one of the best teams in the league, and one of the most consistent teams," midfielder Logan Pause said. "Playing at home, they have created a home-field advantage, which is sometimes hard in this league. They're going to be a tough team. It is a big test."
The Fire (6-8-8, 26 points) are in the midst of a five-match winless streak and remain on the outside of the postseason picture with eight regular-season matches remaining. RSL, on the other hand, is in second place in the Western Conference with a 12-4-8 record and 44 points, vying with the Los Angeles Galaxy for the top spot in the West standings.
There are too many shortcomings within Chicago's recent play to specifically pinpoint the team's downfall of late. But one aspect of the team that Fire head coach Carlos de los Cobos hopes to find some improved fluidity is in utilizing his two designated players, Nery Castillo and Freddie Ljungberg. In the second half of Chicago's 1-0 loss to the Philadelphia Union last week, De los Cobos went with Castillo pushed up and Ljungberg deeper in the midfield.
"I think we are trying to have a good connection between these two guys on the field," De los Cobos said. "We're trying to improve the situation and this connection. When I put Freddie deeper [into the midfield], he has more space and he has more time. He participated frequently with the ball and was very good for us. He was a very good distributor of the ball in the second half."
The Fire are catching RSL at one of its weakest moments health-wise, which probably is not saying much considering how dominant Salt Lake has been at Rio Tinto. But RSL is without midfielder Javier Morales, who was suspended for a match for his actions against Seattle Sounders FC's Osvaldo Alonso. Forward Fabian Espindola is a question mark with a hamstring strain. And defender Robbie Russell had concussion-like symptoms during RSL's CONCACAF Champions League match against Toronto FC on Wednesday, so his status is in doubt.
It is crunch time for the Fire, and every remaining match will be scrutinized as long as Chicago remains on the outside of the playoff line.
"When things aren't going well in terms of results, the magnifying glass becomes even that much more detail-oriented," Pause said. "When you're winning and things are going great, it's easy. Now's the time when true character comes out."