Thanks to an extraordinary number of injuries the Fire coach has struggled to put a strong team on the field for the first five matches of this Major League Soccer season. That’s largely why the Fire is off to a 1-3-1 start.
Those injuries are healing now, though, and that means Klopas will have some tough decisions to make leading into Sunday’s road match against the Houston Dynamo.
For instance, does Daniel Paladini remain in the midfield after getting a key goal and two assists in last week’s uplifting 3-1 home win over the New York Red Bulls?
Does Maicon Santos, who scored twice against New York, become a starter ahead of Sherjill MacDonald?
Does Arne Friedrich crack the starting 11 for the first time after finally getting some concentrated training time?
Does Hunter Jumper stay at left back after a solid showing in his first MLS start against the Red Bulls?
Does Wells Thompson keep the job at right back after being pressed into duty there because of rash of early-season injuries?
Factoring into Klopas’ decisions are how well Patrick Nyarko (hamstring) and Gonzalo Segares (quadricep) recover from the ailments that kept them out of the New York match. Both said this week that they expect to be ready for the Dynamo, with Segares the more likely to start.
Dilly Duka, another hamstring-plagued midfielder who sat out the last twos matches, could be in the mix as well now that he’s training again. The only player listed on Friday’s injury report was defender Steven Kinney, still questionable with tightness in his right quadriceps. All the others are considered "available.’’
So, perhaps more than any match this season, Klopas will face plenty of game-time decisions.
"There’s competition every day. We take the games and the work that goes in all week, the preparation, the form the guys are in,’’ said Klopas.
The play of Paladini and Santos, in particular, last week puts Klopas on the spot for the Houston match but it’s an enviable problem. Any coach would rather have to make tough choices than have those choice made for him via the injured list. A strong case could be made for 17 players getting a starting call, though obviously only 11 spots are available.
"That’s the depth we’re trying to create in the team,’’ said Klopas. "With Houston we will take it a day at a time.’’
Because of the high-profile aspect of the striker position, the decision between MacDonald and Santos may be the most-closely watched by the Fire’s analytical fan base. MacDonald is a Designated Player and has gotten more of the playing time in the first five matches, but he hasn’t scored yet. In fact, the Fire had only one goal in the first four matches before last week’s breakthrough.
Santos had his two goals off the bench against New York, but Klopas insists he’s not pegged as a reserve.
"He’s always been considered with our starters,’’ said Klopas. "The first game (a 4-0 loss at Los Angeles) Maicon started over MacDonald…. I had no issue putting in Maicon in the first game.’’
So, it’ll be interesting to see what starting 11 Klopas goes with now that injuries aren’t as big a factor as they had been. Only goalkeeper Sean Johnson, center back Austin Berry and defender Jalil Anibaba appear sure-fire starters and Anibaba could be back on the right side (where he played much of last season) if Friedrich is ready for his first game action of the season.
The Fire has had more than its share of health problems; now maybe it’s the Dynamo’s turn. Houston (3-2-0) was without two stars – Will Bruin (hamstring) and Boniek Garcia (ankle) – in last week’s 3-2 road loss in Portland. Their status for Sunday is uncertain, but Houston, the loser to Los Angeles in the last two MLS Cup finals, will be tough with or without them.
Last season the Dynamo, the No. 5 playoff seed in the Eastern Conference, was matched against the No. 4 Fire in the Knockout Round of the playoffs. Bruin was the game’s best player in that Oct. 31 meeting at Toyota Park, which resulted in a 2-1 Houston win.
Houston has always been stronger at home. The Dynamo has gone 34 matches across all competitions without a loss at Robertson or BBVA Compass Stadium, the last loss a 2-0 beating from the Columbus Crew on June 18, 2011.
The Dynamo also is unbeaten in 28 home MLS matches, one short of the league record held by Real Salt Lake. The Fire has played at BBVA Compass Stadium only once -- a scoreless draw last July 3.
While the Fire is on the road, there will be professional soccer in the Chicago area this weekend. The latest version of the Chicago Red Stars will make their debut in the new National Women’s Soccer League against Seattle Reign FC at 5 p.m. on Sunday at the Village of Lisle-Benedictine University Sports Complex.