Strange. That’s the only way to describe some of the early season goings-on in Major League Soccer, and the Fire is just a part of that scenario.
The Fire, with a veteran team back from last year’s encouraging playoff season, is the only MLS team that didn’t score in the first two games. In fact, this is the first time in the club’s 16 seasons that the Fire went two games into a season without scoring and the first time in 13 years that the team started a campaign 0-2.
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But the Fire is not alone when it comes to strange starts. Last season, Toronto FC was not only the worst team in the Eastern Conference, but also the worst in all of MLS. Still, last week Toronto FC knocked off Sporting Kansas City 2-1. SKC was the East’s best regular season team in the 2012 regular season.
And the strangeness carries over to the Western Conference as well. Last season, Chivas USA was the worst team in the West, but last weekend, that Los Angeles-based team whipped FC Dallas 3-1.
So, what happens now, when the Fire takes on two of those other clubs off to unusual beginnings? The Fire visits Sporting Kansas City on Saturday and hosts Chivas USA on March 24.
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The Fire goes to Kansas City without German defender Arne Friedrich, who’s in Germany getting treatment for a sore hamstring that kept him out of the first two matches. Steve Kinney, who started at right back in the two losses, also won’t make the trip with a hamstring problem.
[RELATED: Injured Friedrich departs for Germany]
On the positive side, captain Logan Pause conceivably could make his first appearance of the season. Bothered by a sore quadricep, he went through his first full workout on Thursday but the club lists him as questionable for Saturday. If he can’t go, veterans Mike Videira and/or Wells Thompson might see their first game action of the season.
MLS is promoting the immediately-upcoming schedule as Rivalry Week, but Fire-SKC hasn’t been that great a matchup. The Fire owns a 23-11-9 edge in the series. SKC is playing its first game at Sporting Park, however, and the team once known as the Kansas City Wizards has been tough in home openers.
SKC is a stellar 12-2-3 in home openers, with one of the losses coming against the Fire (3-0 in 1999 when Arrowhead Stadium was the club’s home field). The Fire also played SKC to a scoreless draw in the first match ever played at Sporting Park in 2011. Last season, SKC and the Fire were the two best defensive teams in the Eastern Conference.
There’s some other closeness involved in the matchup. Fire coach Frank Klopas and SKC boss Peter Vermes were teammates in their playing days on the U.S. national team and Fire midfielder Daniel Paladini and SKC defender Josh Gardner are related by marriage. Gardner’s wife Michelle is Paladini’s sister.
Fire players insist that the unexpected slow start isn’t cause for concern yet.
"We need to just keep working and working," said side right midfielder Patrick Nyarko, who made a milestone 150th MLS appearance in last Saturday’s 1-0 loss to the New England Revolution in the Fire’s home opener. It was an improvement over the 4-0 season-opening road loss to the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Galaxy.
"If we weren’t creating chances and scoring soon, I’ll be concerned," said Nyarko. "In L.A. we really didn’t create much. (Against New England) we got a couple clear-cut chances, but just aren’t sharp yet in front of the goal. That comes with time."
No question the Fire is still adjusting to a revamped midfield in which Nyarko is the only returning starter. Dilly Duka, Joel Lindpere and Jeff Larentowicz joined the team in offseason trades. Maicon Santos, who has seen most of the playing time up top, is also a Fire newcomer.
"We’re still learning from each other," said Nyarko. "I didn’t start preseason (on time, with the rest of the team). Dilly didn’t start preseason. We all joined in later, so we need a little time to play together."
Chris Rolfe, who has paired with either Santos of Sherjill MacDonald up top, also sees improvement.
"The L.A. game was an eye-opener for us," said Rolfe. "(Against New England) we were much better. We had three pretty clear-cut chances, but we were just not sharp enough."
"Defensively we played well (against the Revs)," said defender Austin Berry. "It was a big difference from the last game (Los Angeles)."
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"We’ve got to put our chances away," said Klopas. "The game sometimes is not fair because out of nothing we gave up a goal (to New England). We have to be better. When you put your chances away it takes a lot of pressure off."
The Fire doesn’t expect Friedrich to be back until April, and the club will play at least another man short against Chivas USA in the next home game. Lindpere will leave the Fire after Saturday’s match to join the Estonian national team for World Cup qualifying matches. He won’t be back until after Chivas USA visits Toyota Park.