May was a tough month for the Fire in what has so far been a most trying season. June will be different.
While the Fire played only one home match in May, there will be four in June beginning with Sunday’s visit from lowly D.C. United. That game will showcase the new, vastly improved Fire. It’ll be the first home match since the acquisitions of central defender Bakary Soumare and striker Mike Magee. They’ve already made an improvement in the Fire in road matches, and they’ll make an increasingly bigger one as the Major League Soccer season and Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup tournament progress.
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The Fire, 2-7-2 in MLS play, had a three-game losing streak until securing a 1-1 draw at Real Salt Lake in Soumare’s first game with the club on May 25. The Fire hadn’t won a match of any kind since April 20 until its 2-0 win over the Charlotte Eagles in Open Cup play on Wednesday. That was Magee’s first match with the Fire.
Soumare and Magee have filled glaring weaknesses that surfaced in the first 11 matches of the MLS campaign. Now there’s a run of home games, and good results in those could put the Fire back in the playoff chase and poised for another long run in the Open Cup.
Both Soumare and Magee came in trades made within MLS. Soumare, who spend 2007-09 with the Fire before venturing overseas, had been with the Philadelphia Union. Magee was not just with the two-time defending MLS Cup champion Los Angeles Galaxy, he was also that club’s top goal-scorer with six.
And now they’re with the Fire at a good time in the season to build positive momentum. D.C. United (1-9-2 and 0-4-1 on the road) played even worse than the Fire in the first third of the MLS campaign.
"We’re capable of earning three points," said Fire midfielder Joel Lindpere. "We have to start somewhere, and everybody hopes this is the start….D.C. has also been in a very difficult situation, so it’s going to be an interesting game for both teams."
Both survived their first Open Cup tests against minor league opponents this week. United did it on penalty kicks against the Richmond Kickers after a match that was scoreless.
Opening round matches in the Open Cup are rarely easy for MLS teams, which enter the summer-long competition in the third round. The Fire, with four Cups and six appearances in the finals in its 16 seasons, has been the most successful MLS club in that competition but still lost six times to teams from lower leagues.
In 1999 the Rochester Rhinos knocked out the Fire, which went into that year’s competition as the defending champion. In 2002 the Milwaukee Rampage did the same thing. In subsequent years the Fire was victimized by the Carolina RailHawks (2007), Wilmington Hammerheads (2009), Charleston Battery (2010) and Michigan Bucks (2012).
There were some stunning upsets in this year’s Open Cup, the most shocking being the Galaxy’s ouster by the RailHawks. Other MLS clubs already out of this year’s Open Cup are the Seattle Sounders (beaten by the Tampa Bay Rowdies), the San Jose Earthquakes (beaten by Charleston) and the Colorado Rapids (eliminated by Orlando City).
The Fire gets to host in the next round, and the opponent on June 12 will be the Columbus Crew. The Fire got its last MLS win, albeit five weeks ago, by beating the Crew at Toyota Park.
First order of business, though, is beating D.C. United. That club, like the Fire, has struggled offensively. The Fire has only seven goals to show for 11 MLS matches, and United has but six in 12.
This isn’t the same Fire team, though. The additions of Magee and Soumare have changed everything. With Soumare moving into the back line the Fire has shaken off the absence of German veteran Arne Friedrich, who has been out all season with a hip injury that apparently won’t heal. Last season’s stalwart returned to Germany for the second time this week for more treatment from his preferred therapist, Thomas Fennewald.
[MORE: Encouraging signs evident for Fire]
With Soumare able to pair with Austin Berry in the middle, Jalil Anibaba can return to the right side where he played most of the time last season. Gonzalo Segares remains one of MLS’ best on the left.
Up front, Magee has already been helpful. It took him only 11 minutes into his first start to score against Charlotte and he also assisted on the Fire’s second goal, scored by Chris Rolfe.
"It was not only great for Mike to have a good game and score, but it was also good for Chris," said Fire coach Frank Klopas, who badly needed help from new players and got it.
The best thing, from this point of view, about the acquisitions of Soumare and Magee is that both players dearly wanted to play in Chicago. This is very significant. Happiness off the field is an intangible that extends beyond their already proven playing abilities.
For Soumare, it’s a return to the club that started his professional career. That’s been details here in the past. For Magee there’s even more to it.
Magee grew up in the northwest suburbs, mainly Barrington. Family considerations, in the end, overrode a happy situation with the Galaxy. That’s an extreme rarity with the professional athletes in this day and age.
After the trade to the Fire was announced Magee wrote an open letter to Los Angeles fans, offering an elaborate thank you for their support. That thank you extended to "the entire club that has given everything I could have wished for."
But Magee asked for the trade to Chicago. Galaxy coach Bruce Arena wanted to sign Robbie Rogers, a player whose rights were owned by the Fire, and could have done it without losing Magee. After all, Magee had been a clutch scorer (six goals in his last 10 playoff games) in Los Angeles’ last two championship runs. In the end Arena went along with his player’s request (that’s unusual in big-time sports, too).
"If Mike didn’t want to do this I would not have done it. It’s that simple," said Arena.
So now the Fire season is filled with promise again, Excitement will ramp up if the Fire can beat United, the Portland Timbers on June 8, the Crew in the next Open Cup match and the Colorado Rapids on June 19 in the nice run of home games.
As for the D.C. United visit, there are some interesting connections between the clubs. Josh Wolff, a D.C. assistant coach, became a popular offensive player when the Fire gave him his professional start. He scored 32 goals in five seasons with the Fire.
Fire defender Berry and United’s Nick DeLeon were college teammates at Louisville, and they finished one-two in last year’s balloting for MLS rookie-of-the-year.
And forward Maicon Santos, in in a contract dispute with D.C. United, was acquired by the Fire in the first stage of last year’s MLS re-entry draft. In fact, he was the only player claimed in the first stage. The Brazilian striker, now nursing a right shoulder sprain, had seven goals and three assists in 26 matches for D.C. last season and leads the Fire with two goals this campaign.
Injury-wise Santos and midfielder Daniel Paladini, the Fire’s leading scorer, are questionable for Saturday, though both would be doubtful starters even if they were completely healthy. Paladini has inflammation in his left calf.