Updated: Monday, March 25, 11:45 a.m.
The Fire has developed a close relationship with Florida Gulf Coast University, the Cinderella school in the men’s NCAA basketball tournament.
Florida Gulf Coast, with upsets of Georgetown and San Diego State, became the first No. 15 seed to ever reach the NCAA’s Sweet 16. The Fire has included a match with Florida Gulf Coast’s soccer team as part of the Florida portion of its preseason training in Ave Maria, FL. The Fire also played D.C. United on FGCU's Ft. Myers campus in 2012.
[CBT: Is Florida Gulf Coast the most surprising Cinderella of all time?]
Unfortunately, Florida Gulf Coast’s magic hasn’t carried over to the Fire yet. Sunday’s 4-1 loss to Chivas USA at Toyota Park assured the Fire of the worst start in its 16-year history. Strangely, the 0-3-1 record, with just one goal scored in the four matches, followed the most successful preseason in franchise history – one which concluded with the Fire winning the Carolina Challenge Cup tourney for the first time.
The Fire’s worst four-game start in Major League Soccer prior to this season was 0-2-2 in 2004, but that campaign actually began early. The Fire advanced through a two-match home-and-home March series in the CONCACAF Champions Cup before the MLS season started. This unexpected beginning is wearing on the players.
"We’re not putting balls away, we’re giving away easy goals, and that’s a bad recipe," said defender Gonzalo Segares. "Things just aren’t working. We’ve got to bounce back and turn around this season."
"The best thing is that we know we can only go up from here," said midfielder Patrick Nyarko. "We gave up some pretty bad goals. All of the players know what we did wrong, and it’s easily correctible."
It’ll take two weeks to learn if he’s right. The Fire doesn’t play again until the New York Red Bulls come to Toyota Park on April 7. There’ll be plenty of soul-searching done before then.
"There’s nothing to say (about Sunday’s collapse). It’s just embarrassing," striker Sherjill MacDonald said.
The Fire has given up four goals in two of its three losses, two of which came on home turf where the Fire was 11-3-3 last season.
About the only good thing the Fire did on Sunday was finally score a goal. Nyarko did the honors in the 64th minute, which ended a record stretch of 410 goal-less minutes. Alex, the Brazilian midfielder, had scored the last Fire goal off a Nyarko assist in the 83rd minute of a playoff loss to the Houston Dynamo last Oct. 31.
Alex made his first start of the 2013 season against Chivas USA and turned in one of his best performances since joining the Fire following Sebastian Grazzini’s departure midway through last season. Unfortunately, Alex’ day didn’t end well. He was taken from the field on a stretcher with an apparent leg injury in the 86th minute. The status of the injury was not immediately known.
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The injury was in keeping with the way the dismal match went for the Fire. Weather was a major consideration, as 33 mph winds made conditions more uncomfortable than the mid-30 temperatures and was a factor in attendance being just 9,723. Chivas USA had the strong wind at its back in the first half, but the Fire dominated play then with 68.8 percent of the ball possession.
Getting the wind advantage after the break, the Fire went on the attack and had several good chances before a Chivas counter resulted in Edgar Mejia’s goal in the 57th minute. Nyarko scored from 15 yards out seven minutes later off assists from MacDonald and Maicon Santos, but Chivas (2-1-1) quickly regained the momentum on goals by Joaquin Velazquez and Juan Agudelo in the 73rd and 75th minutes.
The visitors also got an own goal in the 89th minute, the ball going past Fire goalkeeper Paolo Tornaghi off defender Jalil Anibaba. Tornaghi got the start with Sean Johnson on national team duty.
Wells Thompson was the latest fill-in at right back with Logan Pause, Steven Kinney and Daniel Paladini fighting injuries. Team captain Pause (strained quadricep) was in the first 18 for the first time, but his defensive skills weren’t appropriate in a match in which the Fire was again more in need of an offensive boost.
The Fire had gone nine games (7-0-2) across all competitions without losing to Chivas USA. The Los Angeles-based team earned its first win over the Fire since 2008 and first in Bridgeview since 2007.
Though it’s only March, there are a flock of significant developments in the works.
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-– The U.S. National Team visits Mexico on Tuesday night in World Cup qualifiying. Coming off a 1-0 win in a Denver biizzard on Friday, the U.S. (1-0-1) is in second place in the six-team CONCACAF grouping that sends three teams to next year’s World Cup finals and a fourth to a playoff that’ll have another berth on the line.
Mexico is 0-2-2 in qualifying and U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann may have that team’s number. He’s never lost to Mexico as either a player or coach. Klinsmann is 3-0-3 while either playing for Germany’s national team or coaching that squad or the U.S. against Mexico.
Already weakened by injuries, the U.S. will be without still another key player on Tuesday. Jermaine Jones suffered a sprained left ankle against Costa Rica and didn’t make the trip to Mexico.
Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson will be the backup U.S. goalkeeper, playing behind starter Brad Guzan. Fire midfielder Joel Lindpere is also involved in World Cup qualifying. He’ll be with Estonia for its home match against Andorra on Tuesday.
-– The Chicago Red Stars, revived for another season in the top women’s professional circuit, played their first preseason match on Sunday and defeated Marquette University 2-0 in Milwaukee. Alyssa Mautz scored both goals.
The Red Stars left Monday for the resumption of training in Austin, Tex., and will visit Notre Dame for another preseason match on April 3. The home opener is April 14 vs. the Seattle Reign at Village of Lisle-Benedictine Sports Complex.
-– The Baltimore Blast wrapped up their seventh championship in the Major Indoor Soccer League on Sunday, beating the Missouri Comets 8-6. The Blast started the playoff run by eliminating the Chicago Soul three weeks ago.
The Soul, playing its first season at the Sears Centre, made the playoffs with an 11-15 record but was last in the seven-team circuit in attendance with an average of 1,565 for 13 home games. The MISL average attendance was 4,095.