The Fire will have its earliest-ever home opener on Saturday, and the lead-in to it has been like no other in the club’s 16-year history.
Since preseason training ended with the victory in the Carolina Challenge Cup on Feb. 23 the Fire has held only two practices in Bridgeview – and neither were at Toyota Park.
Cold weather led coach Frank Klopas to give his players one indoor workout at the Bridgeview Sports Dome last week before taking them to Los Angeles early for Saturday’s season-opener against the Galaxy. The recovery from a dismal 4-0 loss there hasn't gone smoothly either.
The players were off the field Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. Travel and the 15th Fire Foundation kickoff luncheon were part of the reason, but plans for the first outdoor workout on home turf were quickly eliminated when Klopas saw the Toyota Park practice field covered with snow – 11 inches deep, according to the stadium’s operation staff.
In none of the previous 15 seasons did the Fire need to practice indoors once the campaign started, but Klopas had his squad back at the Bridgeview Sports Dome on Wednesday and wasn't sure when the first outdoor workout could be held.
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"It's not ideal being inside," said Klopas following a 2 ½-hour training session, "but we've got to stay positive. We’re just glad we’re home."
Klopas grew up in Chicago, played on various amateur teams here before joining the Chicago Sting and was with the Fire in the club’s first two seasons of 1998 and 1999. He can’t recall playing a game here in such inclement weather, but he had a more frustrating situation playing in Greece. A heavy snowfall wasn’t enough to immediately call off a road game.
"(His team) had to make an 18-hour train ride," he said. "The game was eventually canceled, but we had to be there."
A postponement or cancellation isn't likely Saturday, and the opposition is in the same boat as the Fire. The New England Revolution is based in an area (Boston) hit by much more snowfall than Chicago this winter. The Revs use the New England Patriots’ indoor facility when weather prohibits outdoor training. Saturday’s match will be the Revs’ season opener. They were the only one of Major League Soccer’s 19 teams to sit out in First Kick Weekend.
While the Fire was training indoors on Wednesday plows were clearing the Toyota Park parking lots. While the two practice fields are snow-covered, the stadium turf has a heating system that can produce 65-degree temperatures. The snow melts as soon as it falls, and that field may be used for practice prior to game day.
"It’s important that we get out there," said Klopas. "We don’t mind the cold as long as we can get on the pitch and train."
Especially encouraging was Saturday’s weather forecast of 47-degree temperatures, though there’s a likelihood of rain.
Bad weather or not, the Fire faces its first big challenge of the season – rebounding after the pounding taken in Los Angeles.
"When you’re on the road and get a couple early chances you've to make them count," said Klopas. "We gave up some easy goals, never got in a rhythm and made a lot of turnovers. We didn’t have a very good game, but it was just one game in a long season. We can’t dwell on it. We’ve got to move on."
If the Fire is to rebound on Saturday it’ll likely be without veterans Logan Pause (quadricep) and Arne Friedrich (hamstring). They didn’t dress at Los Angeles and didn’t practice with the team on Wednesday
This year’s Fire opens with a 26-man roster that includes seven new players. Five were with other MLS teams in 2012 – Maicon Santos (D.C. United), Joel Lindpere (New York), Jeff Larentowicz (Colorado), Dilly Duka (Columbus) and Quincy Amarikwa (Toronto). All but Amarikwa were in Klopas’ first 11 at Los Angeles and Larentowicz wore the captain’s armband in Pause’s absence.