Saturday's match at The Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. will pit the Eastern Conference leading Chicago Fire (4-2-4, 16 pts.) against the leaders of the Western Conference, the Los Angeles Galaxy (5-3-5, 18 pts.), in front of a national audience on ESPN2 at 3 p.m. CT. Both teams are entering this game after beginning the 2004 MLS season in impressive form and will be vying for the top position in the MLS standings in what could prove to be an important match if Chicago wants to hold on to its MLS Supporters' Shield crown come October.
The Fire has only given up eight goals this year in ten games, and in six of those games the Fire left the opposing team scoreless, earning goalkeeper Henry Ring a League-leading six shutouts. While Ring could credit his MLS-best 81.1% save percentage for his success, the first-year starter instead deflects the credit the defensive corps that he anchors.
"The defense in front of me has been spectacular," said Ring after the team's training session on Wednesday. "They have let through only shots that I can save."
Fire Head Coach Dave Sarachan has also been impressed with Ring's performance so far this season.
"We're obviously pleased giving up only eight goals, and Henry's six shutouts out of ten games is a proud number."
It will be difficult for Ring to add to his clean-sheet total against the Galaxy, as Los Angeles leads all teams in MLS with 23 goals scored through their first 11 games. L.A. will be without some of that scoring power, however, as MLS Budweiser Scoring co-leader Carlos Ruiz - who is tied for most goals scored along with teammate Alejandro Moreno and Chicago's Damani Ralph - will not be playing due to a right ankle sprain that has kept him sidelined for the Galaxy's last four contests.
Fortunately for the Galaxy, Ruiz is not the only playmaker that will be absent from action Saturday afternoon. The Fire will compete without Ralph, Andy Williams, Chris Armas and DaMarcus Beasley because of national team commitments. Ralph and Williams, the league-leader in assists with five, will be with the Jamaican National Team as they goe up against Haiti Saturday evening at Miami's Orange Bowl in the Reggae Boyz' first match in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. Armas and Beasley will be with the U.S. National Team, playing its opening CONCACAF qualifier against Grenada on Sunday afternoon at Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. These four vacancies have created an opportunity for Sarachan to reward Chicago's younger players for their hard work in training with a place in his starting 11.
"They have worked hard to put themselves in a position to show what they can do and hopefully, if they are called on, they will perform," Sarachan said, referring to the Fire's young midfield corps of Craig Capano, Justin Mapp, Logan Pause, Sumed Ibrahim and Scott Buete - some of whom will be given starting nods against the Galaxy on Saturday.
Despite being only a third of the way through the 2004 MLS season, Sarachan and the rest of the Fire realize that this game is a little different than others at this point in the season.
"It's a little early still, but there is certainly pride on the line with two first place teams whether you are at full strength or not," Sarachan said. "When you play a team that's in first, you put a little extra into it."