Winless Fire go from bad to worse in loss to New England

Winless Fire go from bad to worse in loss to New England
March 10, 2013, 12:00 pm
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Len Ziehm

This is not good.

The Fire is off to an 0-2 start for only the second time in the franchise’s 16-year history, the only other such start coming came way back in 2000.

If that isn’t bad enough, the Fire has yet to score a goal. Coming up empty offensively in the first two games of the season is a first for the franchise. Saturday’s 1-0 home-opening loss to the New England Revolution also came with some negative firsts.

It was the first regular season loss to the Revs since 2006. New England has also been a frequent home-opening opponent, and Saturday’s defeat was the first in five such meetings. Saturday’s meeting also marked the earliest home opener in Fire history, a crowd of 13,243 turning out in 40-degree weather.

Needless to say, this hasn’t been the beginning anticipated after the promising 2012 season and a strong showing in the preseason. Losing 4-0 at Los Angeles in the 2013 season opener, played against Major League Soccer’s two-time defending champion Galaxy, was surprising largely by just the one-sided nature of that match.

[RELATED: Fire shut out by Revolution in home opener]

Losing at home to New England is another matter. The Revs – the only MLS team to sit out on First Kick Weekend – had just a 9-17-8 record last season and were one of the weaker teams in the Eastern Conference. The teams seemed evenly-matched on Saturday, but a goal by Honduran forward Jerry Bengston in the 62nd minute determined the outcome.

There was an interesting momentum shuffle surrounding Bengston’s goal. The Fire was the aggressor at the outset of the second half, leading New England coach Jay Heaps to bring in midfielder Kelyn Rowe as a replacement for Donnie Smith in the 53rd minute.

Rowe had been a problem for the Fire in the past, scoring a goal and assisting on three others in four previous meetings. Two minutes after he entered the match Rowe went down in a collision with Fire acting captain Jeff Larentowicz.  Larentowicz was given a yellow card as Rowe was shaking off the effects of the collision.

Then, following a New England corner kick, Rowe chipped a ball into the box and Bengston headed it past Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson.

"We got caught ball-watching and gave up the goal," said Klopas. "Our guys pushed to get it back. Obviously we couldn’t. It was a tough loss."

So, what gives with the Fire?

Clearly the absence of veterans Arne Friedrich (hamstring) and captain Logan Pause (quadriceps) haven’t helped. Friedrich may not be back for awhile. The German defender figures to be out a month, according to Fire president of soccer operations Javier Leon. That means he will likely miss Sunday’s road game against Sporting Kansas City and perhaps the March 24 home match against Chivas USA as well.

Offensively the Fire generated three good chances in the first half against New England. Joel Lindpere’s chip sailed over the crossbar in the 26th minute. Sherjill MacDonald couldn’t convert Patrick Nyarko’s great feed from the end line in the 27th and Dilly Duka’s 35-yard free kick was deflected off the crossbar by leaping New England goalkeeper Matt Reis in the 31st. Reis also handled Maicon Santos’ low drive in second half stoppage time, the Fire’s best chance to get the equalizer.

To the Fire’s credit, there was no sign of panic from Klopas or his players afterwards. The only clear sign of discontent was Klopas’ appraisal of MacDonald’s play. The Dutch striker was tentatively to be Chris Rolfe’s partner up top during the preseason, but Klopas started Santos ahead of him at Los Angeles.

[RELATED: Short-handed Fire drop season opener to L.A.]

MacDonald came on as a reserve against the Galaxy and started against New England, but Klopas pulled him at halftime with Santos going back in.

"We gook out MacDonald because we needed more from him," said Klopas. "We needed him to hold the ball better. At times when we tried to find him he was late with his movement. He had a couple chances he couldn’t put away."

With the Fire going into the wind in the second half Klopas felt that Santos was a better option because "Maicon is bigger and stronger."

Despite the slow start, the long season still has 32 MLS matches left – plenty of time for the Fire to regain its winning form.  Last year’s playoff team had 11 regular season losses, and an historical footnote to this season’s slow start might offer a glimmer of hope for what lies ahead.

The 2000 campaign, when the Fire started 0-2 with 4-3 road losses at Dallas and Kansas City, didn’t turn out so badly. The Fire won its last four matches of the regular season to reach the MLS playoff and finished off the campaign with a 2-1 win over the Miami Fusion to claim the franchise’s second U.S. Open Cup.