It was just three weeks ago that the New York Red Bulls and the Chicago Fire were flying high. Both teams had taken 10 points from their first four games and appeared ready to set the early pace in Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference. But in the parity-driven world of MLS, a slump -- or a simple return to normalcy -- is never far away.
The Red Bulls have endured a few hiccups in the last few weeks, crashing out of the U.S. Open Cup to Los Angeles and suffering a home defeat to Colorado before rectifying matters Saturday with a 4-0 demolition of Columbus. Chicago, which has lost three in a row, is in dire straits and will attempt to set things right against the Red Bulls on this week's edition of "MLS Primetime Thursday" (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
For Fire head coach Dave Sarachan, that will mean getting a win at the expense of his former mentor, Red Bulls' manager Bruce Arena, for whom he served as an assistant at the University of Virginia, D.C. United, as well as the U.S. men's national team. The two friends squared off twice last year, splitting the series 1-1.
Five story lines to follow
1. The resurrection of Cleatus
With four goals so far this season, Clint Mathis is indeed back, and if further proof is needed, ponder this item: If Cleatus scores on Thursday, he will have matched his goal-scoring output for the past two seasons combined. The reasons for his revival are numerous, with better fitness and an improved supporting cast among the explanations. But according to New York coach Bruce Arena, a more settled personal life has been a bigger factor.
"I think [Mathis] has matured, and that impacts his ability to be successful on the field," Arena said. "And I think he would tell you that married life has been good. I know I might have many millions of men in America questioning that statement, but I think it's been good for Clint."
2. Chicago's sinking fortunes
While the Fire clearly are playing below par, last week's 2-1 loss to Dallas showed they're not getting any breaks, either. A dubious penalty and a deflected shot put them two goals behind, and after Calen Carr pulled them within a goal, his header hit the crossbar with just minutes remaining. It's the kind of result that put a few more gray hairs on coach Dave Sarachan's scalp and has left him trying to find a balance between cracking the whip and emphasizing the positive.
"You do have to correct things, and that comes in training," Sarachan said. "And for it to come in training, you have to push a little more. There is definitely more urgency in getting things right, but not to the point where there is so much pressure on guys that they are not themselves."
3. New York's depth
The Red Bulls' minor stumbles can be traced in part to some key injuries. Right back Hunter Freeman, goalkeeper Ronald Waterreus and midfielder Claudio Reyna all have missed time with an assortment of ailments. But last week's win over the Crew saw New York's depth come to the fore, with forward John Wolyniec and midfielder Seth Stammler, in particular, picking up the slack. With Freeman definitely out for Thursday, and with the availability of Reyna and Waterreus still uncertain, it's a development that leaves Arena confident that his team will be able to survive whatever obstacles the season has in store for them.
"It was all you could hope for," Arena said of his reserves' performance. "We've been a little bit snakebitten with injuries, but that's all part of it, and you have to deal with it."
4. The Fire's forward shuffle
One notable development from last week's loss to Dallas was the way Sarachan shuffled his front line. Chris Rolfe sat out with a bum ankle, and Chad Barrett was consigned to the bench, leaving Carr and Pascal Bedrossian to lead the attack. Rolfe has been involved in only limited training this week, making it unlikely that he'll play on Thursday. Barrett, however, gave the team a valuable spark off the bench, and given that his holdup play is better than that of Carr or Bedrossian, there is a chance he'll be in the starting lineup against New York.
"We're still tinkering," Sarachan said of his forward line. "But I would assume that all three will factor in at some point."
5. New York's woeful attendance
Whether you want to chalk it up to 12 years of underachievement, a cavernous home stadium or home dates with monsoon-like conditions, the bottom line is that only the Kansas City Wizards have drawn less than the Red Bulls' mark of 9,867 fans per game, proving once again that on-field success does not guarantee good attendance. Even ESPN analyst Eric Wynalda has noticed, issuing the New York fans a red card in his "Red Card/Yellow Card" segment two weeks ago. But Red Bull New York managing director Marc de Grandpre is staying patient.
"We'll never be satisfied," said de Grandpre of his team's attendance. "But it's still early and we're not pushing the panic button just yet. There is a long way to go before we get off track."
Five players to watch
1. Justin Mapp, M, Chicago
Despite being a marked man for much of the Dallas match, Mapp was at the heart of Chicago's best attacking forays, and with a little more luck he would have had a few assists. The Fire midfielder has been given a free role in Chicago's attack and can be expected to pop up wherever there is space on the field. Wherever he plays, it will be imperative that New York prevents Mapp from getting a head of steam and running at defenders, which is when he is at his best.
2. Juan Pablo Angel, F, New York
Other than the score, the biggest positive for the Red Bulls no Saturday was the improved play of Angel. While his goal came courtesy of a gift from Columbus defender Marcos Gonzalez, his involvement in the buildup to New York's first goal, in which he sprung Dane Richards down the right wing, is perhaps a truer indication that Angel is quickly adapting to his teammates and vice versa.
"That [process] takes time with any player, especially a player like [Angel] whose style is unique," Arena said. "We see him every day, and we get more comfortable with him and he gets more comfortable with us. Hopefully there are more good performances ahead."
3. Diego Gutierrez, M, Chicago
With Gutierrez having served his one-game suspension for his set-to with Toronto forward Danny Dichio, Thursday's match will mark the first time since May 6 that Sarachan's preferred twin-destroyer midfield of Gutierrez and Chris Armas will be available. That approach could go far in shoring up a defense that has conceded eight goals in the Fire's last three games.
4. Dema Kovalenko, D, New York
When Freeman went down injured, it was left to Kovalenko to assume the right-back duties, despite the fact that nearly his entire MLS career had been spent in midfield. And while Kovalenko has endured a few missteps, Arena feels that Saturday's match saw the former D.C. United midfielder get more comfortable as the game wore on.
Given Mapp's penchant for drifting to the left wing, it will be interesting to see how Kovalenko's rugged tackling matches up against the Fire midfielder's dribbling ability.
5. Thiago, M, Chicago
It's worth noting that as effective as Mapp was against Dallas, his impact was even greater following the introduction of Thiago. The Brazilian has long been one of the more enigmatic players in the league, with his ability going hand in hand with his penchant for disappearing. But lately, Thiago has done better in a substitute's role, and while he will likely begin this match on the bench, his introduction later in the game could tip the match in Chicago's favor.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.