By the numbers: A tall order

by me, anyway - "Damante Razalph" era would close with a thud, after all-time Fire leading scorer Ante Razov decided two months ago that he'd look better in Columbus' yellow and black than in the Fire's red. Others may mourn its passing, but as you've no doubt figured out in the however long I've been writing this column, I'd rather try to figure out what happens next.

This brings us to our ceremonial number this time around, which is one. Numero uno, as in the first. Specifically, the first pick of the SuperDraft. The beginning of the 2005 Fire season could very well be the best chance we have to see if picking Ralph -- the 2003 Rookie of the Year -- in the first place was the exception or the rule when it comes to draft picks since head coach Dave Sarachan took over the reins. Two other guys in particular are going to likely end up in the hot seat, under the microscope -- choose your cliché -- when the Fire open their season in unseasonably rainy Dallas.

To be more specific, the loss of Ralph, coupled with captain Chris Armas' slow return from injury, may finally give us the chance too see if forward Nate Jaqua and midfielder Scott Beute, the first selections by the Fire in the 2003 and 2004 drafts, respectively, are ready to be consistent contributors to the starting lineup.

Both players have gotten minutes and made contributions since joining the team, but to date, neither has made an indelible mark. Jaqua has come the closest, but even the most ardent of his supporters has to admit that part of the reason he saw so much action last season was a lack of other options. As a forward, where he's looked his best, he was stuck behind Razov and Ralph when they were available, and even when they weren't, the lack of depth at right midfield pulled him out of position to fill that hole. So I don't think he's ever been given a role where he could really show what he's made of, save one or two matches right at the onset of Razov's injury problems.

Beute has suffered through a similar logjam, mostly as a spot starter when Armas, Jesse Marsch or Logan Pause was unavailable. With Armas missing every preseason contest to date with lingering injuries and Pause in the recovery room after offseason surgery, the University of Maryland product may finally get his shot alongside Marsch in the starting lineup.

Of course, Ralph could stay and Armas could get healthy, and maybe both guys start the season on the bench. Even so, the ranks seem a bit thinner in front of the two players, so this should be their best opportunity to shine. Saying it's now or never might be overstating the case, but not by much.

The coaching staff is obviously confident that these two can do the job. Otherwise, they wouldn't have drafted them in the first place. But for fans, who aren't privy to how hard someone plays or how good someone looks day in and day out in practice, the early part of the 2005 will be much more revealing.

With the two years of the "Sarachan era" producing such wildly divergent results, how the team starts the season will go a long way toward firming up perceptions of which year was the fluke. So it's only fitting that these two players, who are possibly more emblematic of Sarachan's tenure than any other, will likely get to play important roles in that process.

Chris Costello is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.