The Fire’s next two Major League Soccer matches are on the road, the first of which is a rematch with the Philadelphia Union on Saturday. The club might play at home before May is over, though. The Chicago-based U.S. Soccer Federation announced pairings for the third round of the U.S. Open Cup this week, and the Fire will play their first match on May 28.
That’s a given, but the site is uncertain and so is the opponent. The Fire will face one of two non-MLS teams in the third round of the summer-long competition –- either the Charlotte Eagles or the Seattle Sounders’ under-23 team. They meet on Tuesday, May 21. If Charlotte wins, the Fire will head for Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., on May 28. If the Sounders’ development squad triumphs, the Fire will be the host that night at Toyota Park.
Either way, the Fire will play without goalkeeper Sean Johnson. He’ll be on national team duty that looms as an important time in his promising career.
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann has made Johnson a regular call-up for training camps. The next one is May 26-30 in Cleveland, and an international friendly against Belgium is part of it on May 29. Klinsmann is rotating four goalkeepers so that those with MLS teams won’t miss much time with their clubs.
Johnson’s performance in Cleveland won’t likely affect his immediate status with the U.S. team. He’ll be, at best, the backup when the U.S. plays its three World Cup qualifiers in June –- at Jamaica on June 7 and home matches against Panama on June 11 and Honduras on June 18. In July, though, the CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament will be conducted throughout the U.S. (the final is at Soldier Field on July 28), and Johnson could well be a factor in that competition if he plays well in Cleveland.
There is no doubt, though, that Johnson will be in goal when the struggling Fire visit the Union on Saturday. Those teams collided at Toyota Park last Saturday, with Philadelphia winning 1-0. Since then, the Fire have been idle, but the Union were pounded at home 4-1 by the two-time MLS Cup champion Los Angeles Galaxy on Wednesday. The Union (4-4-3) couldn’t cope with Landon Donovan, who had a goal and two assists in the last 19 minutes of that match.
Thanks to the Union’s midweek match, the Fire (2-6-1) could catch a tired team on Saturday. That’s not the only thing different about this Eastern Conference matchup compared to the one a week ago.
Both teams had key players on red card suspensions last Saturday. The Fire will have midfielder Jeff Larentowicz and the Union gets defender Sheanon Williams back for the rematch. Williams’ long throw-in set up Amobi Okugo’s goal in the loss to Los Angeles, and the Fire nees to be aware of him. Williams’ throw-ins have led to three Union goals this season.
The Fire will also get a better look at Brazilian midfielder Jose Kleberson, the Union’s new designated player. He came off the bench at Toyota Park but made a strong debut as a starter against the Galaxy. Bakary Soumare, the ex-Fire defender, may keep his place on Philadelphia’s back line. He’s been the starter the last two games while Jeff Parke has nursed a hamstring injury.
[More: Fire offense stumbles in loss to Union]
Coach Frank Klopas seems to be taking the Fire in a new direction. His lone designated player, Dutch striker Sherjill MacDonald, didn’t play last Saturday because he had strep throat. Klopas has since said that the struggling MacDonald wouldn’t have started that match anyway. He’s been struggling since the season started, and still hasn’t scored a goal or even played a full game.
Klopas, though, was happy with Patrick Nyarko’s performance after moving him to MacDonald’s spot. He didn’t score, but he was dangerous.
"He was very good off the dribble. He created a lot of opportunities, but he didn’t get rewarded," said Klopas. Maybe he will on Saturday, because the Fire -– with just six goals to show for in nine matches -– need an offensive boost.
"Most of the other players think I’m better up there (in the forward position), but I’m just trying to do what I do best -– creating a bunch of chances and hopefully finishing a few," Nyarko said.
While he has played up top occasionally in his Fire career, Nyarko hadn’t practiced at the spot much. The last two weeks he has.
"It takes a different mentality, and I need to get used to it," he said.
MacDonald’s role –- regardless of his health status –- may be diminishing. Another striker, Quincy Amarikwa, looked good off the bench against the Union and in training this week. His role with the Fire could be growing.
Meanwhile, no new players have been brought in, and the Robbie Rogers scenario remains in the talking stage. The Fire own the promising midfielder’s rights, but he wants to play in Los Angeles. Galaxy coach Bruce Arena has seen him in training and wants to sign him, but trade talks haven’t materialized yet.
With or without Rogers, the Fire need help. Two of the club’s greatest stars of the past -– DaMarcus Beasley and Carlos Bocanegra -– seems to be in career limbo now. Beasley is in a contract dispute with Mexican club Puebla and Bocanegra has lost his prominent role with the U.S. national team.
Wouldn’t it be interesting if the Fire could bring at least one of them back?