Coming off a bye week, the Fire should be well-rested for Saturday’s match against the Philadelphia Union at Toyota Park. It’s difficult to imagine the Fire being in better shape for its return to Major League Soccer action, however.
Saddled with a 2-5-1 record, the Fire is still without injured defenders Arne Friedrich (who has yet to play a game) and Steven Kinney, and midfielder Jeff Larentowicz will sit out a one-game suspension for picking up a red card in the last match – a 2-0 road loss to the Montreal Impact on April 27.
Coach Frank Klopas turned around a dismal season in 2011 when he replaced Carlos de los Cobos after a start that was worse (1-4-6) than this one has been so far. This 34-game MLS campaign passes the one-quarter mark on Saturday, however, and the Fire doesn’t seem to have any answers for its problems yet.
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The Fire has room on the roster to add new players; MLS clubs are allowed 30, and the Fire has 26. The Fire has but one Designated Player; MLS allows three per club.
Most of those who are here haven’t been delivering up to expectations. The MLS Players Union announced salaries throughout the league this week, and the Fire’s top four in guaranteed salary for 2013 include two who haven’t played a game. Alvaro Fernandez is on a six-month loan to Qatari club Al Rayyan and Friedrich continues to nurse a nagging hamstring.
Dutch striker Sherjill MacDonald, the Fire’s only DP, still hasn’t scored a goal. Midfielder Dilly Duka started only three times and has played off the bench in three other matches, in part because of injuries. But, as far as guaranteed salary for 2013 goes, MacDonald is at $527,125, Friedrich at $367,500, Fernandez at $366,666 and Duka at $273,000.
Clearly some players – either those on the roster or future additions – have to step up if the Fire is to make a return to the playoffs.
There have been talks with midfielder Robbie Rogers, but the player doesn’t seem interested. Revealing that he is gay, Rogers announced his retirement after the Fire claimed his rights in a trade with Columbus during preseason training.
Rogers, who has played in Europe as well as for the U.S. national team, changed his mind on the retirement issue and has been training with the Los Angeles Galaxy. He’d prefer to play there, closer to family and friends. The Fire still owns Rogers’ rights and would get compensation if the Galaxy opts to sign him. With or without Rogers, the Fire could get stronger if he takes the field again. That, however, is a big if.
The Fire has admitted interest in one player who will likely be in the Union lineup on Saturday. Bakary Soumare was an MLS Defender-of-the-Year finalist in 2008 and an MLS All-Star in 2009 when he was with the Fire. The Fire came up one game short of the MLS Cup final in both seasons.
Before the 2009 campaign was over, however, Soumare and then-head coach Denis Hamlett got into an incident in the team lockerroom. Hamlett’s contract wasn’t renewed after that season and Soumare wound up in Philadelphia, which started its life as a franchise with ex-Fire captain Peter Nowak as its head coach.
Things changed for Soumare after Nowak lost his job last season, and he requested a trade a month ago after Jeff Parke and Amobi Okugo were named the starting centerbacks. No deal has materialized, though Philadelphia coach John Hackworth hasn’t played Soumare in a game since he made the trade request.
On Saturday, though, that might change. The Union (3-3-3) begins a stretch of three games in eight days with a weakened back line. Parke has a sore hamstring and Sheanon Williams will sit out a red card suspension. Soumare is a likely fill-in.
Suspensions could play a part in this match. Williams and Larentowicz have played every minute for their respective teams this season. While Soumare figures to replace Williams in the Union’s back line the Fire will likely have veterans Logan Pause and Daniel Paladini manning the center of its midfield with Larentowicz out. Pause, a right back in the last match, and Paladini have worked well together in the past.
Still, Klopas will field his ninth different lineup in as many games and has an additional concern. Maicon Santos, the Fire’s top goal-scorer (with two), won’t likely be in the 18-man game roster. He’s nursing hyperextension of his left knee.
Santos started only once, but came on for the struggling MacDonald in the other seven matches. MacDonald has yet to play a full match, but on Saturday he might have to.
Personnel issues aside, the schedule is unusual. While Philadelphia faces a busy stretch the Fire has the rare opportunity to face the same opponent in consecutive games. The Fire visits the Union on May 18.
The last time the Fire faced the same opponent in consecutive matches – playoffs excluded – was in 2007. The Kansas City Wizards were in Bridgeview for two matches four days apart. Kansas City won 3-2 on Aug. 22 and the Fire took the rematch 2-0.
While the Fire plays its first home match since April 20 (and its only one in the month of May), the Chicago Red Stars have a home match as well. Still winless (0-2-2) in the new National Women’s Soccer League, the Red Stars take on the Portland Thorns on Sunday in Lisle.