Things are different now. The Fire hasnt played a league home game since July 14, and the starting 11 that coach Frank Klopas puts on the field Saturday night against Toronto FC could be much different than the one he used in that 1-0 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps. After all, the club has two new Designated Players since it played its last home match.
Designated Players are unique to Major League Soccer. A team can disregard the salary cap in bringing these types in, and they dont always work out. The Fires use of Freddie Ljungberg and Nery Castillo in the disastrous 2010 season was a prime example.
The Fire is hoping for better things from Sherjill MacDonald and Alvaro Fernandez, and Klopas has better players around them than the Fire had when Ljungberg and Castillo tried unsuccessfully to salvage Carlos de los Cobos first season as head coach.
This season, the Fire (9-7-5) has been a stellar 6-2-2 at Toyota Park, and the next opponent is the worst team in the Eastern Conference. That doesnt matter to Klopas.
"We just need to continue to play wellWe need to play consistent to the end. None of the games are going to get any easier, and theres a lot on the line," said Klopas. "Its exciting. You want each game to mean something, and most of the games will because we play teams in our conference."
After missing postseason play the last two seasons, the Fire is in position to make the playoffs now, with 13 games left and seven of them in Bridgeview.
The club got ready for the stretch run by giving reserves liberal playing time in a 1-0 loss to Englands Aston Villa in an international friendly, then parting company with Rafael Robayo and Federico Puppo. Neither made much of an impact as key offseason signings, so the Fire moved in another direction. Puppo, incidentally also carried a DP tag.
In letting Robayo and Puppo go, the Fire made roster room for Dutch striker MacDonald and Fernandez, a midfielder who played in Uruguay before coming to MLS with the Seattle Sounders. Both could make their Toyota Park debuts on Saturday.
MacDonald came on as a substitute in the 64th minute in last Saturdays 1-1 draw at San Jose, and his fitness is still in question. Fernandez, acquired for allocation money from the Whitecaps, joined the Fire at training this week. Hes fit for full-time duty thanks to his stint with Vancouver.
MacDonald didnt do much in the draw against the Earthquakes, the best team in MLS. The Fire let three standings points slip away when San Jose tied the game late in a long second-half stoppage time.
"It was a little difficult for me because it was my first game in a long time," said MacDonald. "Obviously I can do a lot better, and Im looking forward to the next game."
Fernandez scored nine goals for the last place Whitecaps last season and had two in 14 games this campaign before being sent to the Fire. Now its up to Klopas on how theyll be used. Unless Brazilian Alex picks up his game, the Fire doesnt have a clear playmaking midfielder, but Klopas has the players to move around in an effort to overcome the apparent loss of Sebastian Grazzini, who remains in Argentina to deal with family matters.
Marco Pappa, given MLS All-Star recognition even though he didnt play in the leagues midseason match against Chelsea, sat out the San Jose match for yellow card point accumulations but hell be back against Toronto FC (5-12-4). Defender Gonzalo Segares, who didnt make the trip to San Jose after spraining an ankle in training, was back on the pitch this week and is expected to be available against Toronto FC.
In addition to the new DPs and Pappa, Klopas can move around Dominic Oduro, Patrick Nyarko and Chris Rolfe in an effort to perk up the Fire offensively. The club has scored just 23 goals in 21 MLS matches, and only four of the leagues other 18 clubs have scored less.
However, thanks largely to Sean Johnsons great play in goal, the Fire has allowed only 23. Just five MLS clubs have allowed less.